A grand pantheon gazes across a sea of glass in our nation’s Capitol. In it sits a larger-than-life statue of America’s 16th president, Abraham Lincoln. There is perhaps no other monument in all of the United States so majestic as the Lincoln Memorial. Surrounding Lincoln are 36 Doric columns, one for each state of the union at the time of his death. Twelve more states had joined the union at the completion of the monument, so all 48 state names are carved around the top of the structure. The final two states, Alaska and Hawaii, are also memorialized. The message is the power of the determination of one man to bring together again a nation torn apart by war and slavery.
Above his head is inscribed the words, “In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.”
As I stand quietly contemplating, I cannot help but think, “What other national monument, park, building or place do we confer so reverential a name as ‘temple’?”
In front of the statue are placed two signs which read “QUIET — RESPECT PLEASE.” Many people are here. Many languages are being spoken around me. There is a solemn peace in the building. Families and friends are taking pictures with Lincoln. But to watch those from around the world who are here makes it clear that this is not just any American monument. This is Abraham Lincoln, the great emancipator, the unifier, who some would call the greatest United States president. Known around the world.
The feeling here is palpable. All present in this building know they are in a place of greatness, a place worthy of their respect.
Etched right at the top step of the monument is a fitting reminder of the location where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. Perhaps even more fitting is that Lincoln — and King — face east toward the Washington Monument, which continues on to face the front of the U.S. Capitol, where our current elected leaders attempt to engage in the work of the people. The Washington Monument also faces the front of the White House on its north. There is much symbolism in the placement of everything on the National Mall, but especially these buildings and monuments.
What does Lincoln say as he faces our current leaders? A message to learn from our past: “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 here to be 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.”
A message to heal our present, looking forward to a better future, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in 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.”
What manner of leader can inspire so much devotion and praise over generations and likely many generations to come, from around the world? A leader who binds wounds and brings peace, rather than a partisan division that sometimes seems so bitter it could tear us apart again? Do we have those leaders now, or could we?
Now, at this point in time, America again desperately needs Washington leaders, Lincoln leaders and King leaders.