The space between Lane and Kendall Halls tells a story. You may have heard it when you were on tour as a prospective student, but since then it has possibly faded from memory. Familiarity can breed forgetfulness. But it’s a good story, and it warrants remembrance between Veterans Day and Thanksgiving.
The three statues that adorn the circular plaza are part of the larger Liberty Walk, but together they recount the American Civil War in a moving and immersive work of art.
At the center of the plaza is the young soldier, sculpted by the influential Lorado Taft. This is the oldest statue on the campus, dedicated in 1895 by those who lost friends and brothers to the battlefields of Pennsylvania and Georgia. Nearly 500 of Hillsdale’s young men went south to fight in the “war of the rebellion.” No college that was then regarded as “western” sent a higher percentage into the conflict. More than 60 of them never returned. As their classmates read dulce et decorum est pro patria mori — in Horace’s words, “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country” — they acted them out instead.
With the flag in hand, he looks boldly to the South as if daring the rebels to try again. In a circle of grass, he stands on a pedestal that lifts him higher than any of the other campus statues. He’s untouchable in a way the other statues aren’t. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Winston Churchill represent statesmen who offer great but complicated legacies. The soldier demands only gratitude.
Looking at the soldier with perpetual gratitude is the statue of Frederick Douglass, sculpted by Bruce Wolfe and dedicated in 2017. Hillsdale College hosted the famed abolitionist orator and newspaper editor in 1863. In the plaza, the former slave represents the purpose of the war. He gazes at the soldier with a look of determination that also recognizes the young man’s sacrifice, which made African-Americans like him free.
Douglass’ fiery and focused personality comes through. He stands stern and straight, but caught mid-step as though pacing during one of his stirring speeches. The book in his hands recalls his dedication to the written word, which he secretly taught himself while still a slave.
Though Douglass gave the keynote speech at the dedication of Emancipation Memorial in Washington D.C. — a cite of recent controversy — he also criticized the monument in a newspaper: “The negro here, though rising, is still on his knees and nude. What I want to see before I die is a monument representing the negro, not couchant on his knees like a four-footed animal, but erect on his feet like a man.” That’s a good description of his likeness on our campus.
Completing the Civil War trinity is the man who bore the psychological weight of the war that caused so many deaths but won freedom and life for millions. Abraham Lincoln, sculpted by Anthony Frudakis and dedicated in 2009, looks at the ground, hands held behind his back. He bows his head in sorrow, but perhaps not regret. He doesn’t look at the soldier, but we can guess that the young man’s fate fills his thoughts. Lincoln was famously melancholic, and may have suffered from depression while he considered the costs and rewards of fighting a war to keep a nation from breaking apart. The soldier was the cost, and the freedom of black Americans such as Douglass was the reward.
The interplay between these three statues creates a monument to the spiritual struggle that made the Civil War both necessary and tragic. It recognizes the dignity of every human person, as well as the price of putting this recognition into action. It gave freedom to Douglass and burdened Lincoln with duty — and demanded a profound sacrifice from the nameless soldier, who got a memorial instead of a graduation.