“In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.”
I’m fond of Abe Lincoln. Always have been. In grade school we learned the lessons of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. Great men of history, governance and the nation. Models of virtue and wisdom, ideals that us young students should strive to incorporate in our own lives. I must have had a good teacher because I’ve never forgotten.
When I was but the age of twelve I had my first truly patriotic emotion. My family was spending a day at the nation’s capital in Washington, DC; part of our summer vacation. After visiting the Eternal Flame for President John F. Kennedy at Arlington Cemetery and spending several moments in contemplative silence my father drove us to the Lincoln Memorial. I’d previously seen statues, monuments and architectural structures of significance and wonder. This tribute to Abraham Lincoln I knew was different.
As I climbed the 57 marble steps I was in absolute awe and felt I was approaching some sacred space. Not a religious one but a place so entwined with the history of the nation as to be hallowed ground. A Greek temple of marble with tall forty four foot columns, the likes of which I had seen only in books. Once reaching the level of the temple floor the enormity of the nineteen foot tall statue of the 16th President is fully realized.
Seated on a chair with extended arms that rest on front chair legs of carved fasces, (a symbol of law and governance), Lincoln appears reflective. The scale of the statue gives the impression at first of being god like. I imagine Zeus or a pantheon of kings that aspired to greatness. However this is different. Lincoln’s hair and suit are rumpled, the square toed boots not rooted but restless. His countenance does not gaze downward from his mighty seat but outward towards the distance, across the great mall to Washington’s obelisk and beyond to the nation’s capital.
The artist has created a statue of a man after all, not a saint or angel. My heart swelled with pride for my country. A country where a man of humble beginnings with only a back woods upbringing could elevate his position by listening, learning and treating all men honestly and fairly. A country where this man, Abraham Lincoln, born in a log cabin on the frontier was elected as President of the United States and went on to save the Union. I was standing in front of this President and I felt so proud to be there. The memory persists.
Within two years of Lincoln’s assassination in April of 1865 a committee was formed to build a monument. Design work proceeded for awhile and then halted with lack of funding and a Congress that was dealing with the more pressing matters at hand. At the turn of the century another committee was formed with the task of securing proposals for a memorial to Lincoln. After some controversy over the site, an architectural design by Henry Bacon was approved by Congress and Daniel Chester French was commissioned with carving the marble statue.
It took eight years to build the memorial from 1914 to 1922. Henry Bacon’s inspiration came from the Parthenon of Greece the origin of democracy. There are 36 Doric columns surrounding the building, each one representing the states of the Union at the time of Lincoln’s death. Numerous decorative engravings and symbols enhance the exterior. The front portal is open, there is no wall or door to restrict entrance. The monument is open to all, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The interior is austere, softly lit with minimal ornamentation. The statue of Lincoln sits in the central room of the building while there are two short chambers to the north and and south, that create an axis to the building. One chamber wall is engraved with Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. The other with the immortal words of the Gettysburg Address that we know so well.
Much has been written about Lincoln. His life is well chronicled. There are volumes of his speeches from his early lawyer practice in Illinois to his time in the White House. I’ve read many. There are also many chapters recorded of his anecdotes and humorous stories which are still retold. I can’t decide which phrase would be appropriate here….”that this great man had a humble sense of humor”…or…”this humble man had a great sense of humor.” You decide.
“Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision, if they decide to turn their back to the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.” A. Lincoln
Throughout his life Lincoln held in highest regard the principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence and the laws written into the Constitution. His belief that a free people could govern themselves in this experiment of a democratic republic was unshakeable. He believed that given the truthful facts of a matter the population would make wise decisions. Mr. Lincoln would be shocked at the false rhetoric today and the consequences it has brought.
“I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the facts”. A. Lincoln
“It is with your aid, as the people, that I think we shall be able to preserve – not the country, for the country will preserve itself, but the institutions of the country – those institutions which have made us free, intelligent and happy, the most free, the most intelligent and the happiest people on the globe.” A. Lincoln
At this particular time in the country’s history the population’s beliefs are divided. There are two major political parties, each convinced of its own brand of righteousness. Vile words are hurled at opponents. Taunts and jeers are heard in the halls of congress. The citizens of one party express outright hatred for the other in social circles and it goes as commonplace. The leadership in the White House has stirred the flames of passion with it’s own supporters. Instead of trying to strengthen the ties that bind us together the current president, in every speech has promoted divisiveness and discord. It is both alarming and unprecedented. It is a shame this president has no interest in reading history. He would do well to lift a page and learn from Lincoln’s writings.
“If the American people will only keep their temper, on both sides of the line, the troubles will come to an end, and the question which now distracts the country will be settled just as surely as all other difficulties of like character which have originated in this government have been adjusted. ” A. Lincoln
The Lincoln Memorial is a popular place to visit. It had almost eight million visitors in 1917. It is a rare example of a monument that has grown in stature over the years in terms of symbolic significance. The architectural form has not changed but the meanings articulated have been intensified, expanded and even altered by subsequent events. The memorial has personified the legacy of a complex man, been a tribute to the unity of the country after a divisive civil war and a central focal point for the civil rights movement. Many are those that have delivered speeches from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. To me, none are so memorable as the ” I Have A Dream” speech given by Martin Luther King that addressed 250,000 people gathered on the mall in August 1963. That speech has added to the legacy of Old Abe and expanded the meaning of the memorial to many. Each individual brings their own frame of reference when visiting.
Abe Lincoln brought freedom to black slaves with his Emancipation Proclamation. However: that did not end racism. Racism still exists in America. In fact public displays of racism have been on the rise in the past few years. This discrimination is now directed not only at African Americans but also towards Jews, Muslims, descendants of Spanish origin and those of different sexual orientation and more. There are elected officials who have subtly or actively supported this anti-ethical behavior. The President himself said that ” there are fine people on both sides” after a particularly violent demonstration by white nationalists.
Racism is not the only problem the nation faces. Politicians reap in huge sums of dark money while granting political favors to special interest groups and corporate donors. The CIA, FBI and our entire judicial system has been attacked by this administration as being disloyal to him, negating the apolitical position those agencies have traditionally held. Despite the collective warnings of scientists on environmental concerns, pristine areas of wilderness and public lands are being sold off to exploitive extractive industries. Income inequality is discouraging when only a handful of individuals own more wealth than the rest of the entire population. America’s position as a world leader is being diminished as our allies are not given an ear but a lashing tongue of insults, meanwhile despots and dictators are given credence. Long standing protocols and procedures are being deemed irrelevant or ignored. Our system of three branches of government, each with oversight is dissolving while a Conservative Congress appears unable or unwilling to address this outrage.
I fear the nation is on a dangerous path. The Right Wing Nationalist movement of isolationism nor the jingoism of “Make America Great Again – USA, USA, USA” will not unify the country or begin to solve its problems. My friends we can do better, we must. Above all a sense of decency must be restored.
“America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.” A. Lincoln
The Lincoln Memorial is a moving and inspiring place to visit, it is also a disquieting one, for their remains a challenge, an ambient reminder of the nations still unfinished business.
Abraham Lincoln was born February 12, 1809. Two hundred and nine years later I salute you Mr. President.
Do well my friends,