Washington and Lincoln

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Like many school children in America during the 40’s and 50’s, I grew up with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. They kept an eye on me in every classroom I entered.

I remember radiators hissing comfortably, chalk dust sifting from erasers, art projects parading walls—and George and Abe on high, supervising.

I knew their heads intimately: Washington’s pulled-back hair and big nose floating on a cloud of white because the artist didn’t finish his assignment; the expression on Lincoln’s thin face reminding me of my father when he worked too hard and worried too much.

I also knew their stories: Lincoln reading by candlelight, holding a young boy upside down to make muddy tracks on the ceiling of his stepmother’s cabin, storing papers in his stove pipe hat; Washington confessing misuse of his hatchet, clacking his false teeth, and standing as he crossed the Delaware in a boat — which must have irritated the rowers.

Though I felt well acquainted with them, I didn’t perceive them as people like the rest of us until I visited their historic sites years later.

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The day I toured Valley Forge, the sun filtered through high clouds and warmed ground once covered by snow-drifted tents and unfinished huts. I thought of the soldiers who died in the cold, imagined Von Steuben drilling confidence into underfed men, and pictured the tall general walking among his troops.

But it was as I wandered through the small, two-story farmhouse that served as his headquarters that I felt the humanness of George Washington, beyond anything I had learned from books.

I remember leaving the second floor where the officers met and hearing the stairs creak at each of my steps. I thought they probably did the same under Washington. I reached out and placed my hand on the round knob topping the banister post at the bottom. My fingers tingled. Surely Washington had placed his hand here as he turned toward the small room, as naturally as I did. In that moment, I knew him as a fellow human being.

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Lincoln became real to me in a grander setting.

I climbed the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in a frozen world at 6:30 AM the day before Thanksgiving in November 1969. An overcast sky prolonged the darkness; the air moved humid and cold about my face.

Except for two military guards, who seemed impervious to the frosty temperature and our awed presence, my former husband and I stood alone with Lincoln in a silent city. I studied the massiveness of the seated statue, the unruly hair above eyes that gazed directly into mine, the gangly hands, and the care-lined, familiar face.

He seemed alive.

As I read the lines of his Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural Address carved into the walls of the interior, I imagined his voice intoning the words. I wondered if such magnificence sprang from him full-blown, or if he reread and revised his words multiple times, as I always did.

It seemed likely to me that Lincoln made revisions; he was a real person, as real as Washington: two men who struggled to do right and good things for our country.

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23 thoughts on “Washington and Lincoln

  1. Great read Janet- I have only recently studied Washington, his humanity, up here he is usually viewed as something of a caricature, the cherry tree, the teeth, the fact we never stand up in the boat….I have an old friend, a professor at your Harvard, who described the Lincoln Memorial at night as bringing him to his knees, others have told me the same, very powerful presence. I had a book once, “Offerings At The Wall”- everything left at The Vietnam wall cataloged-incredible book. Donated it to a library…Happy Presidents Day, can name more of them than our P.M.S.esses.

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  2. I like how your friend described his visit to the Lincoln Memorial, Sheila. He said what I felt. Off the top of my head, I can name three of your Prime Ministers: Pierre Trudeau because they made much of him in the U.S. about the time I was becoming more politically aware; the woman, Ms Campbell, (I can’t remember her first name) who was appointed and then lost her bid for reelection (I remember her because she was a woman, of course); and the current office holder is Stephen Harper, I believe. I probably know him because I have more time to pay attention to such matters now I’m retired. And that’s it I’m ashamed to say. Do you do Valentine’s Day in Canada?

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  3. Hello Janet, yes Trudeau, great man, his son now leads the Liberal Party, funny you recall Kim Campbell, she was choked when Reagan, sorry my nemesis “Raygun” bombed Libya or invaded Grenada, I forget which and she was not woken up and informed. Harper is a cold, evil thing created in a lab. Eeka, Valentines Day- yes big deal here- I once sat waiting for someone in the middle of Sydney, Aus this day , every chap on the street was carrying a bouquet, all the shops sold flowers on the sidewalk. In Manitoba my friends guy bought hers at Safeway on his lunch, they froze in the truck all afternoon and the clot gave them her anyway. Do you do the romanticall thing?

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    • I remember being favorably impressed by Trudeau; and know next to nothing about the other two, but, because I know you, Sheila, I’ll happily accept your assessment of them. I loved valentine celebrations as a child and teacher, but never did get with the idea that it’s necessary as adults to express your affection for your loved ones one day a year by buying them things..

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  4. I,m sorry that “they” decided to lump all presidents into one day as a holiday. Some of our presidents don’t deserve to be so honored, in my opinion. I guess it would take a long time to reach agreement on which ones to include and which ones to exclude. The two you describe are definitely at the top of my list as honorees. Nice tribute.

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  5. This is a wonderful and timely post, Janet.
    I grew up within two hours of Valley Forge, Gettysburg and Washington D.C. so I have been fortunate to have visited these sites several times.
    However, it was while viewing his grave on a trip to Springfield, IL that President Lincoln became a real person to me.
    I wasn’t expecting it, but standing by the spot where the great man’s body was buried was a very moving experience.

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  6. You are lucky, indeed, to be so close to so much of our history. Next time I’m in Illinois, where I am often because that’s where our grandchildren are, I’ll go to Springfield. Thanks for sharing your personal experience with this very important and yet human man.

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  7. George Washington changed from a mythical person to human, for me, when I toured his home at Mount Vernon. Viewing the bed made special for his uncommon nearly 6’3″ height and standing on his back porch overlooking the Potomac River made me realize he lived a life outside of history books.
    Janet, you very eloquently stated the feeling of awe I felt standing quietly at night in the Lincoln Memorial.To turn from his marble statue and look across the reflecting pool to the lit Washington Monument, and stand on the steps where Martin Luther King gave his Dream speech, was a significant moment in my life. I enjoyed your thoughtful post.

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    • Responses like yours make me think about what a wonderful thing it would be if all the citizens of the United States had a chance to walk where our nation’s giants walked, stand where they stood. Like my Dad said, “It kind of gets to you, doesn’t it.”

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  8. Janet and Mercy, felt that way to climbing the stairs in the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam…yesterday had a co-worker in hysterics at having to go to a comic book convention with a canker sore- oh how I wish people could really “See” and smell and engage in this world- I rant, happy Friday.

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