Who Here Gave Their Lives
Abraham Lincoln passed his last hours in a cramped back bedroom in a boardinghouse across the street from Ford's Theater, mercifully unconscious, folded awkwardly onto a bed too short for him, laboring to breathe. A doctor had declared Lincoln's head wound mortal on the scene, so the dignitaries and friends gathered around him had only to wait. Shortly after dawn, the inevitable arrived. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, bereft, brought his emotions under control long enough to say, "Now he belongs to the ages."
…Unless Stanton actually said, "Now he belongs to the angels." Adam Gopnik wrote a wonderful piece on that debate for The New Yorker a few years ago and concluded, among other things, that either version is believable because either version is apt. But whichever word Stanton used, it occurs to me that Lincoln had always belonged to the ages; the ages lent him to us for a time. Out of the mythically humble beginnings, the awkward landscape of crags and dogged cowlicks that over the years became a map of grief and honor, the horror over which he found himself presiding and the straightforward sorrow with which he spoke of it to us, we built ourselves a saint. Once we had done this, the ages retrieved Lincoln, in the grisly and dramatic fashion accorded his status. And the angels must have, also.
Lincoln, I think, sensed this about himself — that he had a narrative destiny. On the narrow point, his life is a triumph of tragic plot-craft. The deaths of two of his sons seemed to bow him, physically, and sent his already high-strung wife into an accelerating tailspin of séances and compulsive shopping. His Cabinet initially held him in, at best, contempt; he had to fire and rehire the ineffectual George McClellan several times, then defeat him for a second presidential term.
But Lincoln had a gift for narrative as well, for what the nation should (or would) hear, and how. He could craft a powerful phrasing; he also understood when the phrasing, the words, would mean nothing. Interesting that the Gettysburg Address has become a rhetorical exemplar when Lincoln says, in effect, that there is nothing to say and no way to say it in the second place, that the dead and their sacrifice have already spoken. That the fallen, and where they fell, belong to the ages.
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 battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. 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.
It is elegant and structurally balanced. Lincoln both hints at and warns against a hopelessness too dark and solid to lift. You can imagine Lincoln's heavy lids, slowly closing against pain, and a prayer gathering in his mind as he wrote on the back of an envelope on a rattling train — a plea. Let something grow out of this ground that is black with blood. Any small thing. But he knows a speech is like daisies against a cannonade here, so he admits this, and he sits back down before the photographer can get set up. He puts his hat in his lap and vows to do right by these dead who belong to the ages. Or…the angels.
Don could belong to both, but the first slice of cake definitely belongs to him. Happy birthday, friend.
Tags: September 11th