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Sunday, December 2, 2012

Etched in Stone (Part One)

(Note:  This is the first segment in a new two part series in which readers may continue to enjoy the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator.)

What exactly does it take for something to become etched in stone? …

The national monuments in Washington, D.C. are spectacular.  They inspire awe.  Tributes to some of our greatest leaders, from George Washington to Jefferson to Lincoln to T.R. and F.D.R.: they’re present.  Memorials to our participation in some of the conflicts of the 20th century, from World War II to Korea to Vietnam: covered.  Spending a little time away from the world of mass media and “always on” communication devices to absorb some of these monuments is worth the price of free admission.

Step inside the Jefferson Memorial, and there he is, in all his splendor.  Glance up at the statuesque figure of Thomas Jefferson commanding the center.  So what if he’s not really there?  Examine the wall plaques encompassing the surrounding perimeters for some of the finest prose man can offer to posterity.

Some years ago we traveled to Rome to experience that city’s ancient footprints and spectacular ruins.  We had arrived on Christmas Eve and were unaware that the city had already begun to shut down for the sacred holiday.  So we left our hotel and began to walk.  And walk we did, until our legs ached.

It was misting lightly, the temperature in the mid-50s.  Our feet got wet.  We were cold.  It was now late afternoon, and it would be time to stop soon.  But stop where?  Foolishly, we were not carrying a street map.  As we continued to pace, we happened to look up from the ground and took in a startling view.  Was my mind playing tricks on me?  Did I also mention we were getting hungry?

In the distance, yet still close enough to get to on foot, was what appeared to be the US Capitol Dome.  For a moment, I thought we were back in WashingtonD.C.  But it couldn’t be the US Capitol Dome.  We were in Rome.  The dome was attached to St. Peter’s Basilica, that great cathedral at the entrance to the Vatican.  It indeed looked familiar, since the US Capitol Dome was modeled after St. Peter’s.  I’m sure I had read that probably a dozen or more times over the years, but from that moment forward my brain made a permanent connection.  I guess you could say it was now etched in stone in my memory.

How exactly does something become etched in stone?  After all, it’s just an expression.  Back in Washington, D.C., I was conveniently in among the monuments.  If anyone knew the answer to that question, it had to be Abraham Lincoln.

The Lincoln Memorial is a majestic monument.  A set of pillars and a wide expanse of steps take you up.  And there sits the lifelike, father figure of the Great Emancipator in a big stone chair.  Almost 150 years later, it still looks like he’s obsessing over the preservation of the Union.  Some things never change.  But the feeling is comforting yet.

Gaze over to the left of Lincoln (his right as he is facing us), and there are some words actually etched in stone on the south wall.  They must truly be important words.  I begin to read them silently to myself:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. …

I recognize the writing at once as Lincoln’s November 1863 Gettysburg Address.  In a fateful three day battle Robert E. Lee’s invading Confederate army was reduced by one third.  As he retreated in defeat, we would learn that almost 60,000 lives from both sides were lost here.  President Lincoln wanted to commemorate the losses with a “few appropriate remarks.”  I continue reading:

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.

At the time, the retention of government by the people was of particular concern.  What a magnificent speech.  Lincoln managed to summarize the Civil War, 272 carefully chosen words in just 10 sentences.  It occurs to me that I am staring at the words for a longer time than the 12 minutes it took Lincoln to deliver them.  I guess that’s how things get etched in stone.  Did not Moses bring down the Ten Commandments on stone tablets?

Over on the other side to Lincoln's left, there are more words etched in stone on the north wall.  I’m too far away to make them out, so I wander over in that direction.

(Next week's second and final segment in this series unlocks the mystery of the words etched in stone on the wall to Lincoln's left and leads readers from there to the second lesson of US History.)

-Michael D’Angelo

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