I recently visited Washington D.C. for the first time. It is incredible, with history everywhere you look. I viewed the Founding Documents; the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution. I saw the Capital, the White House, Union Station, and the magnificence of the Washington Monument.
None of that compared to the Lincoln Memorial. It sits high upon a hill, a giant edifice. As you approach, you remember the moments in our nation’s history that have taken place on these steps: Dr. Martin Luther King and the March on Washington, Nixon talking to protestors, speeches, and movies.
The monument was built in such a way as to encourage the visitor to first walk up the almost 100 steps, to recognize that the path is not easy, to keep looking upwards towards the President. Once you reach the top, and enter the memorial, a quiet reverence surrounds you. You pass through a double row of columns and are finally able to gaze upon Lincoln. To think about the Man and what he means to the country. Then, you are meant to visit the side chambers, where his most famous speeches hang: the Gettysburg Address to the left, and his Second Inaugural on the right. The visitor is meant to be able to touch the untouchable here. To feel the presense of Lincoln, and to commune with him. As you turn to leave, the Mall spreads before you. The President’s stare focused on the Capital Dome miles away.
Fellow-Countrymen: At this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.
On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war—seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.
One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully.
The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
–President Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address
March 4, 1865
In the weeks since my visit, I think often of the Memorial and how it felt to be there. I think of what it represents. I think of what Lincoln meant to the Republic. I think of where we have come in the scant 150 years since Lincoln. I read the Second Inaugural and think of where we are as a nation. In some moments I am proud, and in others dumb-struck. I am reminded of words of other Presidents; Reagan, “…ours is not a perfect nation. But even with our troubles, we remain the beacon of hope for oppressed peoples everywhere. Never give up the fight…”; Theodore Roosevelt, “We must dare to be great…;” and Bill Clinton, “There is nothing wrong in America that can’t be fixed by what is right in America.” All of these statements speak to a hope in our nation, that ours is a fight worth fighting. That we strive to be more than we are.
Please read Lincoln’s speech, and reflect upon the Nation you want. And, perhaps, remember one other quote from ‘Honest Abe’, “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”
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