Lincoln at National Harbor: This Too Will Pass

Lincoln at National Harbor

The Lincoln statue was a surprise.

I had biked to National Harbor to look at The Awakening. During this pandemic year, one invents activities to pass the time.

The Awakening is an aluminum sculpture of a giant emerging from the earth. Formerly at Hains Point, it was moved downriver a few years ago to National Harbor, the hotel/casino/shopping complex in Maryland.

The sculpture was blocked off by fences so I took the opportunity to bike around the abandoned streets of National Harbor, idly coasting by shuttered restaurants and stores until I spotted the Great Emancipator.

The rail splitter can be found on American Way, right by South Moon Under,  up the steps from Potbelly. Lincoln overlooks a video screen (“Good morning from National Harbor: Capitalize on it all!”) and a massive Ferris wheel on a pier jutting out into the Potomac.

I just finished Lincoln on the Verge, the powerful and moving story of this common man advancing toward death and destiny.

If his statue in National Harbor, little more than a prop for Instagram selfies, could come to life, what would he think of America in 2020?

I think he would be pleased that we lasted so long.

He would be delighted by people of all races enjoying a stroll along the promenade. The bright colors and carnival wheel would be charming diversions to him. But the old boatman would be most pleased to be within sight of a river.

Plague would not surprise him. Death and sickness were old friends. He often talked with the dead, believing that they existed in a spirit world that was within reach.

Leaving his home in Springfield in 1861, he did not expect to return. Just getting to Washington required providence, as he was nearly done in by overly exuberant crowds and gangs of assassins, as depicted in Lincoln on the Verge. Four years later, he returned home, in a coffin, his route retracing his earlier rail journey.

Unlike other politicians of the era (who remembers anything James Buchanan said?), Lincoln’s words live on because he spoke clearly and directly. We’d call this authentic. To the people of 1861, who had suffered decades of sophisticated oratory to protect the institution of slavery, this was electrifying.

Elites in the cities scoffed at his homespun tales. But if he was liberated from his bronze, and was free to walk around National Harbor, he’d have a comforting story for listeners:

It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words, “And this too, shall pass away.” How much it expresses!

This too shall pass. Lincoln inherited a broken country and in four short years created an America worthy of its ideals. He knew he didn’t have long. But he endured and triumphed. We will too.

Lincoln on the Verge – Book Review

Lincoln weeps for the nation

I’m reading the wonderful Lincoln on the Verge, which beautifully captures Old Abe’s rail journey to Washington after his election.

There were two countries in 1860, the year Lincoln was elected. A free and prosperous North and an aristocratic South where wealth was built by slavery.

Despite having a smaller population, the South had elected most of the presidents during the nation’s history. Congress was run for its benefit. The Supreme Court was stacked in favor of slave-masters.

Thanks to the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision, the long tentacles of Slave Power had spread north as federal marshals hunted escaped slaves in states like Ohio. It was all perfectly legal. And obscene.

Washington was a swamp, literally and figuratively. Filled with half-completed monuments and stinking canals, it was a city controlled by powerful men in the lobby of the Willard Hotel. A new term was developed for them: lobbyists.

The Republican Party was formed in response to this corruption and the endless compromises that kept the slavers in power.

Lincoln was a fresh voice who spoke in simple terms that any person could understand. He said:

A house divided against itself, cannot stand.

I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free.

I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided.

It will become all one thing or all the other.

Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.

Plots were hatched to prevent his inauguration.

Parliamentary schemes were proposed of the type that would be familiar to Mitch McConnell. There was talk that Congress, still controlled by the South, would refuse to certify the election.

Conspiracies formed in Baltimore to assassinate the President-Elect.

Armed militias drilled in towns like Alexandria to oppose the federal government.

Lincoln on the Verge depicts how Abraham Lincoln made it to Washington, protected by a nation that wished to reclaim the true American ideals of equality.

More than a century later, the institutions of government are controlled by lobbyists once again. The canals of Washington are long gone but the city is still a swamp. Corporations have been bailed out while ordinary people line up for food banks. The stock market is juiced by a Federal Reserve devoted to printing money, which props up asset-owners while leaving the poor with less.

Once again, as in 1860, we have two nations.

An America of the grift, controlled by the Trump crime family, where favored industries are bailed out and insiders are tipped to dump their stocks before catastrophe.

An America of a precarious working class, one paycheck away from starvation.

Which nation shall prevail? As in 1860, we face a fight.

As told in Lincoln on the Verge, the United States found its champion at exactly the right moment in history. During the long journey to Washington, the people propelled Lincoln forward. They made him as much as he made them.

That is our task now. To fight for our country.