For those who regularly travel down Kennedy Boulevard, the Abraham Lincoln monument at the entrance to Lincoln Park has become as much an icon as “Lincoln the Mystic” – the statue at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. that it replicates.
Unveiled on Memorial Day in 1930, the local statue has been the site of Lincoln birthday celebrations ever since, although the Jersey City Lincoln Association – the oldest such group in the nation – has been honoring Lincoln since the association was founded just after Lincoln’s assassination in 1865.
Dr. Jules Ladenheim, almost as much an icon as the statue, has been part of these ceremonies for a long as most people can remember. Each year he recites from memory famous Lincoln speeches, first at a wreath-laying ceremony at the statue during the day of Lincoln’s birth, then later a longer speech during the annual dinner.
On Feb. 12, Ladenheim stared out over the small group of association members, public officials and local residents, reciting from memory a condolence letter Lincoln wrote to a mother who had lost five sons serving in the Union Army.
As with the famous Sullivan Brothers who died together when their ship sank in World War II, and the situation upon which the Steven Spielberg movie “Saving Private Ryan” was based, the deaths of these boys and Lincoln’s letter became symbolic of the massive sacrifice that the Civil War had caused grieving parents.
Lincoln’s personal response has since become one of the great testimonies to the president’s depth of feeling over these losses.
In other years, Ladenheim has sometimes read the Gettysburg Address, which also displayed Lincoln’s feelings about the conflict and the losses not merely of those fighting for the Union, but also over the waste of human life that the conflict was inflicting on both sides.
The association has been vigilant in keeping the memory of Lincoln alive, gathering each year on his birthday to remind the general public about a man some consider one of the two greatest presidents in American history and what he stood for.
The outdoor ceremony always takes place at the foot of the statue, regardless of weather. In 2017, they held their ceremony in freezing rain and sleet, and many came without umbrellas or hats. Although it was cool this year, rain held off so a group that included Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop and Councilwoman Mira Prinz-Arey could complete the short ceremony for the 153rd time.
Over the years, the group has brought a number of notables to help honor Lincoln. In 1930, the first ceremony held in front of the statue, the group brought a veteran of the Civil War. Prior to that, the Jersey City event brought a number of prominent national public leaders such as former President William Howard Taft in 1917.
Other dignitaries who have come to Jersey City to honor Lincoln include Ambassador Ralph J. Bunche of the United Nations, NJ Governor Edward Casper Stokes, Chief Justice Clarence E. Case, and Charles Osgood of CBS television.
“We were supposed to get Theodore Roosevelt but he died two weeks before he was scheduled to come,” said Dennis Duran, historian and member of the Lincoln Association of Jersey City.
“Lincoln was not popular in New Jersey. Many businesses had ties to the South and thought he was bad for business.” – Dennis Duran
New Jersey wasn’t kind to Lincoln
Long before Lincoln became the 16th president of the United States, he was well known for his storytelling talent, usually illustrating some point about a person or issue.
Lincoln once told a tale about a sailor whose ship sank off the coast of New Jersey, leaving him clinging to a piece of wood. Railroad workers on shore made their way out to save him. When they tossed him a rope, he asked what country he had landed in. They said, “New Jersey.”
He threw back the rope and said, “I guess I’ll drift on a little longer.”
Lincoln would later have good reason to dislike New Jersey. The state, with close business ties to the South prior to the Civil War, voted against him twice in presidential elections.
“Lincoln was not popular in New Jersey,” said Duran. “Many businesses had ties to the South and thought he was bad for business. Some believed he was pushing the country into war.”
But Lincoln frequently passed through Jersey City, landing by ferry at what is now called Grundy’s Pier at Exchange Place on his way to Washington, D.C. and points west and south.
“When he got off the ferry, he would stop and say a few words,” Duran said.
Lincoln campaigned for president at Exchange Place on Feb. 27, 1860, but New Jersey ultimately voted against him. Lincoln returned to Exchange Place on Feb. 21, 1861 on his way to his inauguration in Washington D.C. Slightly more than a year later, President Lincoln again stopped at Exchange Place while on his way back to Washington from West Point.
The Lincoln Association was founded in response to lingering controversy among some city residents regarding Lincoln’s policies during the Civil War, its purpose, and conduct.
As in some modern media regarding national policies, Jersey City’s two newspapers, The American Standard and the Evening Journal, held opposing political positions. The Standard was opposed to Lincoln, while the Journal supported him.
Duran said while some residents opposed Lincoln because they were racist, many business owners saw Lincoln’s policies as bad for business.
Lincoln fiercely opposed slavery, calling it “morally wrong,” but also opposed the use of violence to achieve its abolition. He opposed its spread to new territories, and proposed returning to the gradual elimination of slavery that was envisioned by the founding fathers.
But he eventually came to realize that slavery could not be maintained as it was. In a series of debates in the 1850s he postulated that slavery would either have to be in every state or in none at all. He said he would work to abolish slavery. Eventually, in the midst of the Civil War, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation that declared all slaves were free.
Lincoln is particularly relevant in contemporary society because many issues such as immigration and abortion have divided the nation almost as significantly as slavery did in his day, when he said, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”
“Opposition to Lincoln ceased once he died,” Duran said.
As part of a national mourning, Lincoln’s body was transported through Jersey City on its way to New York and beyond.
“Thousands came out to mourn him,” Duran said. “It was the biggest funeral ever in New York. The procession in New York was so long that by time the end of it reached the 34th Street train station, Lincoln had already reached Albany.”
Oldest Lincoln Society in America
Duran said Lincoln supporters in Jersey City met for the first time in a picnic area in June 1865 to discuss setting up the Lincoln Association. Two years later on Feb. 12, 1867, eight Jersey City leaders began meeting in Lincoln’s memory at the Zachau’s Union House, then located at 146 Newark Ave. This resulted in the founding of the “Lincoln Association of Jersey City.”
“Hudson County had a number of Lincoln Societies, but most of them were associated with veterans’ groups,” Duran said. “As these veterans passed away, those societies faded away, too.”
Over the years meetings have been held at various places: Taylor’s Hall, now the site for the Commercial Trust Company at Exchange Place; the Washington Hotel, now St. Mary’s Residence at 240 Washington St.; the Jersey City Club, now the Masonic Club at Crescent and Clinton avenues; the Carteret Club, now St. Dominic’s Academy at Kennedy Boulevard and Duncan Avenue; and until last year, Casino-in-the Park in Lincoln Park.
But with the reports of the Casino changing ownership, the group this year held their dinner at a steak house on Montgomery Street.
The statue at the entrance of Lincoln Park was designed by James Earle Fraser. He was noted for his design of the buffalo nickel and End of the Trail sculpture of an American Indian on horseback for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. The statue is now in the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma City.
“We wanted to get Pierre L’ Enfant who designed the one in Washington D.C. which was unveiled in 1922, but he said he was too busy,” Duran said.
Money to pay for it was raised from public donations with the last $3,500 of the total $75,000 coming from nickels and dimes of school children, Duran said.
Al Sullivan may be reached at email@example.com.