Traveling can make reading difficult – traveling that doesn’t involve long flights, that is. I’m eager to get away for an hour in the middle of a work day, find a lonely table in a restaurant, and read some history or philosophy. But why would I take time away from the very things I traveled so far to see? Still, here and there, in the early morning or on the Metro, I’ve been reading Greek dramas and Tennyson poetry the last few days during my visit to Washington, D.C., with my daughter.
But it occurs to me this morning that my most thought-provoking reading lately has involved displays in museums and on monuments. On Thursday, for instance, we walked the circuit of memorials on the west side of the National Mall and around the tidal basin. There’s not much to read, of course, on the Washington Monument. But then we entered the fairly new World War II Memorial, the bright stones of which are replete with text and ideas. Like the War itself, the memorial is too large to comprehend in one glance (or one camera frame). So we moved slowly around the fountains of celebration and peace and unity, and read the quotations by presidents and generals about purpose and achievement, liberation and sacrifice, and we felt an awful thankfulness and that true pride that walks on humbled knees.
From there we walked along the Reflecting Pool and watched some ducks point their tailfeathers up as they fed from the penny-strewn bottom, oblivious to the sacred memories surrounding them. At the west end of the pool, we turned right and started descending a path lined by solemnly dark slabs, reading only a tiny sampling of the thousands of words there. As unlike the World War II Memorial as gabbro is from granite (i.e., as black from white), the Vietnam Memorial has nothing to say about why we went or what we accomplished; even the most tentative statement along those lines would have raised inappropriate controversy. But no one can argue with the meaning of its overwhelming litany of names: These People Did Not Come Back.
Noting that the eastern wall of the Vietnam Memorial points to the obelisk of the Father of the Country, we turned back west to see the Lincoln Memorial reflected in the western wall. Now there’s a mystery not written in words. I know not exactly how, Robert B Emro, but your sacrifice serves the memory of our two greatest leaders, and we honor you for it.
Our breath gradually returned as we made our slow way back up the western ramp to go pay our respects to the Great Emancipator. Since the last time I visited the Lincoln Memorial, both of the speeches memorialized on its inner walls have become dearer to me. I analyze the Gettysburg Address at least once a year with my students as a model of writing. And Ronald White’s book about the Second Inaugural Address has me convinced that what he dubs Lincoln’s Greatest Speech is in fact one of the greatest speeches of history.
We discussed school textbooks on our journey up the hill. Now there’s some weird reading. My teachers and books taught me that the Civil War was not about slavery but about states’ rights. My daughters’ teachers and books taught her the same. But on three separate occasions in the last year, I’ve read the view that history textbooks offer this theory only so they can be sold in the Deep South. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural tells us that “all knew” that slavery was the cause of the war. The Republican Party was founded as the Anti-Slavery party, and the southern states seceded because the openly Anti-Slavery Lincoln was elected. Yes, Lincoln followed his duty to restore and preserve the Union, but for the first year of the war, that meant a Union in which slavery was at least confined to a limited area, whereas the southern states did everything they could to spread slavery to new territories. Of course the Civil War was about slavery!
The question arose as we approached: How much worse might things have been if this extraordinary man had not been here to lead the country through its greatest crisis? Well, first, if Lincoln hadn’t been elected, the country would not have split, and the Civil War as we know it would not have happened. But based on what I’ve read by Shelby Foote, Bruce Catton, James MacPherson, Eric Foner, and others, I believe that American slavery would have continued its legal status, definitely through the 1960s and perhaps even until today. And it would have spread. During the latter half of the nineteenth century, the U. S. may well have taken even more of Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean (through wars which, along with the Mexican War of the 1840s, might even get monuments on the National Mall) in order to spread the “peculiar institution.” More of these territories would have become states, and the representatives they sent to Congress would have given slavery an unstoppable majority in the Senate and perhaps even in the House. This means the federal government would never have sponsored a transcontinental railroad or land-grant colleges, both of which Congress authorized while southern representatives were gone. The Homestead Act probably would have come about, but it may have required two houses on every tract of free land: one for the family and one for the slaves. In other words, the growth of wealth, education, and freedom would have been stunted in our country. Perhaps some northern states would have eventually seceded (led by Massachusetts probably). And then would America have been prepared to tip the scales in 1941? Would the waters dance in a World War II Memorial on the National Mall? The Mall, in fact, would represent a pro-slavery country, and if there were a Memorial to WWII, it wouldn’t sit between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, because there wouldn’t be a Lincoln Memorial.
The state of Georgia has chosen to represent itself in the Statuary Hall of the Capitol Building by a sculpture of Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy. Now in what other country would you ever see the Second-in-Command of a failed rebellion honored in the nation’s capital? After talking about and thinking about Lincoln and the Civil War and slavery, I looked up Stephens just to check my memory. And sure enough, Stephens said clearly that the Confederacy was based on slavery, that the conflict began because of slavery (pace high-school textbooks), that the Founders of 1776 were wrong to believe all men were created equal, and that the Confederacy was the first country ever to be founded on the “natural law” of white supremacy. And yet he sits in the Capitol Building of the nation that defeated his rebellion, sharing a room with some of those Founders he so firmly disagreed with. It’s a good thing for Georgia that the Founders they so despise believed in free speech, because the presence of their statue of Stephens constitutes the greatest exercise of that right in the history of the world.