Tucked into the massive central hall of the Lincoln Memorial sits an imposing marble statue of Abraham Lincoln. Over Lincoln’s head is inscribed:
IN THIS TEMPLE
AS IN THE HEARTS OF THE PEOPLE
FOR WHOM HE SAVED THE UNION
THE MEMORY OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN
IS ENSHRINED FOREVER
The statue stands over 19 feet tall. Lincoln is shown in a seated position, but, if he could get up, he would stand 28 feet tall. He wears an expression of firm determination, eyes fixed rather sadly looking out onto the National Mall toward the Washington Monument. Sculptor Daniel Chester French (1850-1931) began work on his design for the statue in 1915, making many bronze and plaster models. The sculptor consulted photographs by the well-known Civil War photographer Mathew Brady and used Lincoln’s life mask as well as casts of Lincoln’s own hands as models.
Now look at both of Lincoln’s hands. There’s a popular legend that Lincoln is shown using manual sign language to sign his initials, with his left hand shaped like the letter “A” and his right hand to form an “L.” The National Park Service denies that this is the case. There is no evidence that Daniel Chester French intended for Lincoln’s hands to be formed into sign language letters. Nevertheless, it’s possible. Believers point out that a National Geographic Society publication states that French had a son who was deaf – and French himself knew sign language. He would have had good reason to do so, too, to honor Lincoln, as it was President Lincoln who signed into law the ability for Gallaudet University, a school for the deaf, to grant college degrees.
There are those who say French did shape Lincoln’s hands in this fashion on purpose yet others insist he didn’t. There is, however, evidence he could have. French had used sign language in his sculptures before. In his 1889 portrait of deaf educator Thomas Gallaudet shown with his first student, Alice Cogswell, Gallaudet uses his right hand to make the sign for the letter “A” as Alice, too, makes the “A” sign with her right hand.