If Abraham Lincoln does indeed walk at midnight, the byways of Springfield, Illinois as the poet Vachel Lindsay suggested in 1914, he surely walks the streets of the nation’s capitol where he knew such troubled dreams. For Lincoln, one of the most brilliant politicians in American history, knew well the fatal consequences of political disputes in this republic.
He grew to manhood in an era when such arguments routinely ended in gunfights at dawn (or later) and walked battlefields (Bull Run, Sharpsburg, Fredericksburg, Petersburg and Antietam) where the blood-drenched crops of war left almost no room for a man to set his feet on solid ground.
Lincoln spoke eloquently of his concerns at Gettysburg when he resolved “that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth,” describing that battlefield as testing “whether this nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.” Yet 150 years after he urged his fellow countrymen and women to “finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds,” some wounds are yet to heal and many politicians divisively open new ones to further their agendas; something which tragically is neither new to human history nor unique to the U.S.
Washington has changed in ways that Lincoln could not have imagined but he would still find familiar places within walking distance of the White House, in great part due to his legacy. The exterior of the people’s house is little changed since the photograph below was taken in the 1860s.
Blair House, which he visited for consultations with editor, Frank Blair still stands out the back door and just across Lafayette Park. Although Blair and his son Montgomery, who Lincoln appointed Postmaster General of the United States are long gone, the latter buried in St. Louis’ Bellefontaine Cemetery, not far from the grave site of Edward Bates, the president’s first Attorney General; both men serving in President Lincoln’s Cabinet.
The Custis-Lee Mansion continues to overlook the White House from a rise across the Potomac River but the number of graves has vastly risen since Civil War dead began to buried beneath Robert E. and Mary Custis Lee’s elegant lawn. And the number of foreign wars that followed the War Between the States would surely give Lincoln pause.
Ford’s Theater, where Lincoln enjoyed brief respites from the burdens of politics and war remains a mere six block walk from the White House, barely far enough for President Lincoln to stretch his long legs.
2015 marks the 150th anniversary of not only the end of the deadliest man-made disaster in the history of the United States but of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
Although the city of his death bears George Washington’s name it is Lincoln who looms over it larger than life. Perhaps because what began so idealistically yet imperfectly with Washington could have ended so disastrously here with Lincoln. Yet didn’t.
One cannot miss the slender elegance of President Washington’s Monument but it’s the Lincoln Memorial that every American feels he or she must visit. And once visited it’s never forgotten. Daniel Chester French sculpted the arduous, exhaustive struggles for justice and peace so splendidly in Abraham Lincoln’s visage. His sculpture is both a revelation and a challenge. It represents what at best it means to be an American and it suggests that the work may be endless.
If a spectral Abe Lincoln does restlessly walk the streets of Washington, I hope that he sometimes pauses for pleasure to wander the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum, or Museum of Natural History, or the National Gallery of Art, for they are worlds of wonder and beauty unto themselves with the power to inspire one’s hope for humanity.
Washington, D.C. is in 2015 a large and bustling American city, far more densely populated and cosmopolitan than the Washington of Lincoln’s day, where Pennsylvania and Maryland avenues were still dirt roads.
It’s made up of miles and miles of row houses and sprawling suburbs of almost every description; a world capitol where much of the world comes to parlay and negotiate, and where immigrants from many nations have made their home and diversified the culture.
But in ways that are both suitable and haunting the Civil War and our nation’s wisest statesman seem ever-present here, reminding us how critical civil discourse is to the preservation of this republic for which so much has been sacrificed.
Photo Credits: A Harvest of Death, Gettysburg 1863 – Timothy H. O’Sullivan, President Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, Close-up of The Lincoln Memorial, South Entrance of The White House in the 1860s and Arlington National Cemetery – all in the public domain at wikimediacommons.org.
Blair House daylight.jpeg. – author: Ben Schumin, 2006 at wikimediacommons.org – Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike -2.5 License; Exterior of Ford’s Theater, The Presidential Box in Ford’s Theater, The Peterson House in Washington, D.C. and Long-Shot of the Lincoln Memorial – Tom Kavanaugh, Sr.; Robert Gould Shaw Memorial by Augustus Saint- Gaudens, Alexander (Sandy) Calder Mobile in the West Building of the National Gallery of Art, Entrance to China Town in Washington, D.C. and Starbucks Coffee China Town, Washington, D.C. – Maureen Kavanaugh, author of this blog.