He stood on his tiptoes, trying to center himself under the massive chair, between the legs of the marble President. The Reflecting Pool, fountains of the Second World War, Washington Monument, Capitol, all in succession. Barren trees scattered on each side and a smattering of pre-inaugural tourists enjoying the spectacle. His eyes straining in the attempt to emulate the perspective of the figure towering above him, gazing off into the unknown.
The answer was not forthcoming. “I wonder if he is looking into the future, or the past maybe?” The solemn yet determined look that marked the long face gave no clue. An enigma, but a guiding light just the same. “What would he do in this crisis?”
It had been inevitable that the young man would end up walking those steps, silently stunned in that sacred cavern charged with the ever watchful vigilance of our Nation’s Capitol. The moments, and even days, leading up to this arrival were all tinged with this unavoidable rendezvous.
The journey took him from one coast to the other, flying over the marvels of human achievement and natural wonders, the latter putting the former to shame in sheer expansive magnitude. The desolation of the Sierras and vastness of Death Valley, over the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead, across the magnificence of the Grand Canyon. From 32,000 feet, the cut of red earth in the panoramic view from a bubbled cockpit taking his breath away and silence seeming the only appropriate response. Making their way across Texas, with windfarms on one side, and oil derricks on the other, the landscape slowly changing from the rugged brown of the West to the green of the East. The Lands of Manifest Destiny giving way to those forged by Patriots and Revolutionaries. Taking off from Houston as the sun set, casting brilliant hues that slowly faded into a purpling, then black darkness. The lights of Memphis, Nashville, Durham and finally Norfolk marking the path of their aircraft through the night and to the completion of their expedition.
Then the drive through Virginia up to DC through the interstate tunneled in the midst of an endless forest. Paying respects to the First President, then the Greatest Generation, but always with the columned temple in the corner of his eye and back of his mind.
The circuit was not a new one, but one that never ceased to inspire awe. In the past, done at night with companionship, and at times alone in contemplation. But always ending at the same place.
Some things take your breath away. Some moments leave you bereft of thought, consumed only with the weight of the present. He was in a rush, even as a tourist with this sole purpose, but after reading only the last paragraph of the words carved in marble on the right side, he stopped himself, took a deep breath, and rooted himself in the middle of the cavern.
The Second Inaugural loomed overhead, chiseled expansively across his vision, and the world’s motion and noises stopped. He read.
“AT this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.
On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, urgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war—seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.
One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see 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.”
When he was done, and stood there for what seemed like minutes, he found that his mouth was hanging agape, tears running down his cheek. This surprised him, and somewhat embarrassedly and quickly wiped away the evidence. But even more was the great peace within his soul. The understanding that whatever we face, worse has been confronted by generations prior, and that there are Great Men who appear at the beckoning of Providence in moments when we need them most.
So he looked to the author, and tried to see what he saw, appreciating why past Americans had sojourned to that spot seeking solace and advice. No answer to his question came, as of course was the inescapable truth of facing a stone. No answer, that is, but the abiding feeling that the resolution of the choices we have to make are of our own volition, and individual judgment the true exercise of responsible power.
And thus the pilgrimage ended, to be undoubtedly repeated, but presently fulfilled.