The air cooled instantly as we stepped through the crowd at the top of the stairs and into the shaded alcove behind the columns. While hundreds of people milled in front of the statue, few were tucked into the wide space beyond the side columns. We leaned or sat against the cool stone pillar and gazed at the immortalized words etched into the walls.
“Four score and seven years ago our forefathers brought forth on this continent a new nation conceived in liberty…”
I tapped Qaiden on the head and whispered, “Let’s read it together.” He hoisted himself off the floor and stood near me.
“What’s a score?” he asked.
“So that’s 87 years?”
“Mmhmm. 87 years since the Declaration of Independence.” What I didn’t say was how amazing it was the country had lasted so long, or how surprising that within a hundred years of its existence it was being torn apart. Both are true, though conflicting.
In a soft voice he began. “Four score and seven years ago our forefathers brought forth on this continent a new nation conceived in liberty…” Eventually he came to a natural breaking point and he stopped for breath. I continued from there. Heads close together, oceans apart from the other tourists at the monument, as if in a contemplative bubble we stood. When I paused another voice joined in, my niece’s.
“The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
When we finished we paused and soaked in the gravity of his words. Then we snaked our way through modern crowds that seemed misplaced to the hush of the far side. Again Q and I stood together. Daniel had settled himself just past the next column. My niece had slipped off to her sisters. We began again with the second inaugural address.
“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…”
Again at the break his voice picked up where mine left off. And where he paused another voice joined ours, her southern drawl adding a particular poignancy to the words
“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.”
My aunt had joined us without our noticing.
Together we continued to his final admonishment:
“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.”
And an echo of emphasis: “With malice toward none and charity for all to do what is right and to bind the nation’s wounds.” Looking up from the final lines I noticed that half our group had gathered around us in the time it took to recite Lincoln’s address.
The stolen stillness we created between us, and the coolness under the columns gave a satisfying weightiness to our visit. A sense of stepping out of time to find the ways in which both times are linked. We need his wisdom again in these times of stark and stubborn divisions.
Rather than rushing by to frame selfies, or glance sideways at passing exhibits, we paused to reflect. This became one of my favorite moments of our trip.