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Lincoln the Lawyer

February 13, 2023

The Law School’s statue of President Abraham Lincoln was sculpted by Civil War veteran George Bissell.

The exterior of Silverman Hall is ringed with carved stone medallions bearing the names of significant figures in the history of Anglo-American common law, from Justinian to Edward Coke to John Marshall. Arlin M. Adams Professor of Constitutional Law and Professor of History Sarah Barringer Gordon has written that the selection and placement of these medallions was governed by the idea of progress over time.

“The pinnacle of legal thought, according to the architectural scheme of the medallions,” Gordon wrote, “was in America, where English tradition blended with the American landscape to reach its highest and best form.”

Today, however, “the very concept of ‘greatness’ seems to be in fundamental doubt, much less attributable to a collection of elite men from the legal past,” Gordon wrote. “Yet even in this age of the anti-hero, there can be little doubt that the emulation of kind, honest and independent-minded legal actors is an ambition worth imparting to law students.”

Still, the medallions are not the final word on legal greatness, she wrote. “The final focus of progressive development over time, the architectural celebration of legal figures surrounding the building and leading up to the entrance, occurs inside the building itself. Opposite the front entrance, in full view straight ahead on the massive staircase leading up to the library from the Great Hall, stands a statue of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln, who led the most massive legal and political reform the United States has ever known, is a superb example of legal greatness” as Silverman Hall has memorialized it — of revolution in the interest of tradition, Gordon wrote.

“For Lincoln avowedly fought to realize the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, even as he fundamentally restructured the legal landscape in the interests of fundamental justice.”

Sculptor George Bissell was a Civil War veteran who fought with the 23rd Connecticut Infantry Volunteers. After the war, he went into the family marble business and began modeling clay, then making sculpture in marble and bronze.

Explore more of the Law School’s remarkable art and architecture.