February is seldom as fun as I hope it will be. I dream of escaping to the sledding hill or spending an afternoon out ice-skating, but instead I end up trapped at my desk, thinking of dead presidents, the white and black races, and slavery.
Its calendar page filled with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, the birth and death dates of Frederick Douglass, and the observance of Black History Month, February is a minefield of historic associations, of significance buried but waiting to explode. February calls us to think of those two great presidents, whose deeds galvanized and shaped the country we live in today, but who were both creatures of an America born ‘half slave and half free.’ President Washington was a rich slaveholder who, despite being our most important revolutionary and patriot, couldn’t see much beyond the social system he grew up in. Yet he and other Founders, determined to separate from Britain and become self-governing, spoke and wrote and envisioned an ideal nation, thereby creating a framework, impetus, and justification for political improvements that we continue to strive for today.
Seventy years on, Lincoln took the nation he had inherited and participated with others in ripping slavery out of its economy and Constitution. Assassinated before the political fate of the freedmen and the South was settled, Lincoln urged the nation in his second inaugural to understand the Civil War as God’s judgment against slavery, a sin practiced for 250 years, in which the entire nation had been implicated.
If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences 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 offence 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 bond-man’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.”
Such was the state of the nation in 1865: a nation so divided in its views as to produce four years of bloodshed and some half-a-million casualties; a nation whose slaves were recently freed but living in a state of political limbo, penniless, disenfranchised, and vulnerable; a nation where defeat would produce pride in the Lost Cause and a lasting nostalgia for the status quo ante bellum. The difficult tasks facing Lincoln and his contemporaries, never really finished, fall to the responsibility of the living. Such is the incitement inscribed in the Lincoln Memorial.
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 . . . to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.
What Washington and Lincoln accomplished for us, or failed to accomplish for themselves or for us, what meaning their lives had, what more they could have done if this or that had been different: such have been the subject of hundreds of volumes. Yet the existence of that vast literature does not advance us the distance we still need to travel. It doesn’t relieve us of the burden of discovering how to make this a more perfect nation, where the promises of freedom from tyranny and the enjoyment of individual rights have been completely, and wholeheartedly, and irrevocably fulfilled.
We are a bit like the figures in this picture, playing ‘crack the whip’ on the Washington Mall. The anonymous figures, silhouetted in their suits and hats, are carefree in a way we don’t expect grown-ups to be. Intent on their wobbly velocity, they grip one another, knowing they’ll all go down if one fails to stay balanced. Exhilarated, breathlessly suspended, they glide every which way, as the leader digs in to ‘swing the chain.’
From one perspective, the tableau reads like a sweet poem to the joy that can come from liberty. Occupying the space between the unseen Washington monument and the Lincoln Memorial, the skaters embody the freedom that earlier generations and the structure of American government created, a freedom we live almost without thinking. The radical political achievements of Lincoln’s fellow Republicans further expanded this landscape of opportunity by insisting on, and attempting to secure, true civil and political equality for black Americans. In the 1860s, provisions abolishing slavery, guaranteeing citizenship and equal protection under the laws, and forbidding racial discrimination at the polls became part of the Constitution. This legacy of the Civil War is as precious as it has been controversial.
By the time this photograph was taken, in the 1920s, the status of African-Americans had greatly changed, yet race hatred had worked its way back into law and custom, successfully consigning most blacks to a marginal and dependent social condition. Jim Crow laws in the South and subtle and overt forms of racism throughout the United States effectively reversed and nullified those Constitutional guarantees. Blacks endured segregation and unequal treatment for decades, being forced to accept the leavings of white society or to create their fortunes out of nothing. Such was the middle ground of freedom they occupied until the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, when a second wave of legislation and court decisions more successfully held open the door to equality.
While the effect of these measures has been transforming, equal protection under the law and the protection of citizens’ voting rights continue to be flashpoints as we struggle to live in peace with one another as equals. In the year’s shortest month, may Lincoln’s fiery injunction warm those hearts who are cold.
Image: “Ice skating; The Lincoln Memorial in the background, Washington, DC.”
Five men playing ‘crack-the-whip’ on the Mall in a photograph from mid- to late 1920s.
From the Harris & Ewing Collection at the Library of Congress.
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