Did you ever notice the plaque on the wall in William L. Harkness Hall? As you rushed out of your History or French class, did you recognize the words of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, in large, raised letters, just about at eye level? Hundreds of people must have passed it every day, without even a glance, myself included during the years I taught in that building. Except for an occasional difference in punctuation, the plaque faithfully reproduces word for word the standard text of Lincoln’s famous speech, along with a reproduction of his signature at the bottom. Even though it has been there many years, it is timely now to reexamine its ideals in light of recent efforts to increase campus diversity.
The 1963 publication “Yale Memorials” indicates that this plaque was donated by Joseph Seligman, class of 1908, “on the 30th reunion of his class in memory of its members who have died since graduation.” According to “Yale Memorials,” this attributive inscription appeared in WLH underneath the Gettysburg Address, on “a wooden plaque with gold lettering,” a plaque which no longer appears on the wall. This wooden tablet could have deteriorated and disappeared during renovation of WLH in the 1990s. Seligman must have donated the Gettysburg Address commemoration in 1938 or soon after. Since his classmates would have been in the right age group to have enlisted in World War I, many of them must have fought and died as the soldiers at Gettysburg did. Depending on the specific dates of commissioning and installation, this plaque may have been put on display ironically just as the United States took up arms again during World War II.
While Lincoln’s 1863 address memorializes those who died at Gettysburg in service to freedom, it also invokes the Declaration of Independence, the well-known “four score and seven years ago” recalling the events of 87 years earlier in 1776. Seligman links Yale to the goals of the Gettysburg Address and, indirectly, to the Declaration of Independence. He bestows these same ideals on his classmates and inspires the plaque’s readers to continue to defend liberty and those oppressed.
The plaque is a material reminder of certain connections between Lincoln and Yale. For instance, Lincoln spoke to a large, enthusiastic crowd in New Haven at Union Hall, on March 6, 1860, before he was nominated as a Republican Party candidate for president (which occurred in May of that year). A large brick building, Union Hall once stood on Union Street in New Haven, not far from Water Street. Lincoln was on a campaign tour at that time, speaking on matters connected to the slavery question. He came at the invitation of James Babcock, an attorney and publisher of a New Haven newspaper, the Palladium. Lincoln had just delivered a celebrated address on February 27, 1860, at the newly established Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York City. Then on March 5, after appearances in New Hampshire, he spoke at City Hall in Hartford, Connecticut, arriving in New Haven in the glow of those recent gatherings. Many in the Yale community already knew of Lincoln and his coming visit had aroused great interest. For instance, according to Judith Schiff in a 2009 Yale Alumni Magazine article, John Candee, class of 1847 and Law School class of 1849, had written to Lincoln in anticipation of his visit to New Haven. Candee planned to meet with him here: “so many of us have met you and we shall find you at the Cars or Hotel.”
James Russell Lowell, a Harvard man, related an anecdote about a Yale College “professor of rhetoric” who had heard Lincoln speak in New Haven and who then attended a subsequent appearance by Lincoln in Meriden on March 7, 1860. In a scholastic edition of Lincoln’s papers from 1888, Lowell recounts how Lincoln was surprised and pleased that his words would have attracted the interest of such a notable personage as a Yale professor, especially given his own professed lack of formal education. Lowell saw a philosophic sympathy between the Yale intellectual environment and Lincoln’s ideas.
The memorial plaque in WLH deserves a prominent place in the ongoing efforts of Yale University to improve inclusion and diversity on campus. It offers a positive image of University architecture and design and should inspire hope in those who see it. It would be fitting for the Committee on Art in Public Spaces to restore the missing identification once beneath the Gettysburg Address plaque, as well as to polish its darkened metal alloy, in order to increase awareness of these egalitarian and humanitarian values in Yale history. We cannot change who we were, but we can reinterpret the past with fresh eyes so that we change who we become.
Anne Dropick is a fellow in Branford College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .