[I am going to start publishing the text of the Afterburner’s sometime after they appear on PJTV (I tried to do it before they appeared once, and the text got the link and not the video!)
Hope you like it. I am very, very proud of this one.]
Just a few blocks away from the Capitol building is an unassuming, dingy flophouse – once owned by one William Peterson – which is directly across the street from Ford’s Theater, and it was to this tiny aprtment that President Lincoln was carried on that awful night back in 1865. I had read about this small, shabby little place for decades, and seen many deathbed illustrations of the place, but nothing can prepare you for how small, how appallingly, claustrophobically tiny, and dingy and cheap this little room actually is. There on this very spot, the sixteenth president underwent what a Civil War surgeon – who had seen horrors the modern mind cannot comprehend – called the most pathetic and agonizing death he had ever seen. It took eight hours.
To stand in that little room, a foot or two away from where Abraham Lincoln breathed his last in the middle of such squalor, brought crashing home to me the humanity of history, the small, pathetic humanity of it: just another death in a sea of life and death, no different really than anyone else.
And yet, just a mile or two away from that dark and depressing deathbed, stands this:
…This temple, where the imperishable words of that man are written in granite and viewed by millions and millions of people each year. Those words and ideals are read, aloud or in silence, by new generations every single day.
That transformation from dying flesh into eternal marble, that fundamental understanding that there is more to man than brain and blood and bone, that a final, desperate gasp was not the end of Abraham Lincoln and the ideals he espoused but rather the beginning of them: these are the lessons you can take from the city of Washington, if you only have the ear to hear them.
Lincoln, for all his many political gifts, was above all a writer, a man who used language as music: music, imperishable music to the American people.
Here is a little of that music:
How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg? Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.
If I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend six hours sharpening my ax.
I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.
Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.
You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right…
And finally, in these bitter and contentious times, a heartfelt one for our liberal friends across the political aisle:
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
These words are in granite, in a marble temple, visited by millions. These words will never die.
In another temple, near the other end of the mall, sit the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution – the real documents, the real things, which I saw on a pleasant Sunday afternoon, with a line far, far shorter than at any McDonald’s at any food court in any other mall at that same time on that same Sunday.
Many of us talk a lot about the Constitution these days, but I don’t want to talk about the Constitution – I want to talk about the Declaration. The Constitution is the “how” of America, but the declaration is the “why.”
So much vitriol and anger is directed to the Tea Party movement: cries of racism and outright lunacy, the depiction of the people who attend these events as a bunch of wild-eyed paranoid radicals who are just waiting to shoot and hang people in some misguided, knuckle-dragging zeal whipped up by rabble-rousers like Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck, an uneducated, ill-read group of imbeciles who get ginned up over guns and Nascar.
The modern Tea Party movement is made up of people peacefully protesting tax rates that, taken in total, approach half of all of their income; protesting the takeover by unelected czars of entire sectors of the economy; protesting the drunken orgy of spending not only the present wealth of the nation but the wealth of our children and our children’s children; protesting waste on a scale where a billion dollars – one thousand million dollars – is essentially undectable, a rounding error… all of that, which its critics decry as mouth breathing paranoia… while the founders, enshrined in the mural surrounding these documents and which these same critics claim to revere – these founders, the greatest minds ever assembled in one place in the history of the world – took their country to war against the greatest military force on the planet because of a one-cent tax on tea.
Think about that! Forget the penny tax! It was never about the tax. It was about the idea of being ruled by people who cared not a whit about your lives but who only saw you as a source of revenue for their own grand ideas.
The why of America – when it’s all said and done – is simply this: we will be governed with our consent, but we will not be ruled.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
And so, I came to read the Declaration – the why of America – to see the actual words on the actual parchment. But you cannot read the Declaration of Independence, even when it sits an inch beneath your fingers.
I had expected to see this:
Black letters on crisp yellow parchment. But this is not what you see. This is what you see:
My friends, the declaration of Independence is gone. The actual parchment is there, much softer and larger and whiter than I expected it to be, but the letters – the words – are gone. Gone.
Yes, the massive capital letters that read “In Congress, July 4th, 1776” are still somewhat legible. But the actual document is utterly unreadable. Even the bold, black signature of John Hancock, has now faded and decayed to this to a barely discernable black smudge.
The Declaration of Independence – the foundational “why” of why we are here – is faded, irreparably faded, and lost to us forever. And the sight of it filled me with despair. Not only for the lost document. I became overwhelmed with despair because the loss of the words on the parchment beneath the glass at my fingers felt a perfect analogy for the fading of those words and ideals from the pages of society. Like the ghost signatures on this pale surface, so many of these ideals are faded and worn — almost invisible, today.
And the instant I had that thought I had another. This document, this piece of parchment, is unreadable. So I resolved to make a copy: just for me.
I wrote it out, by hand, using a four-dollar fountain pen I got at the drug store and copied onto regular printer paper. I could have typed it – heck, I could have texted it – but wanted to write it out by hand. I wanted it to hurt a little.
And I would urge you now – I would urge each of you listening to this today, especially those of you with children – to help me recover this document. We can’t get that ink back on that paper. But we can do something better. We can put new ink to fresh paper, and copy down once again those words exactly as they were written. We can whisper them aloud as we write them – as I did – and through writing them anew on the page we will inevitably write them anew on our hearts, as fresh and as clear to our eyes and our souls as they were the day that ink dried in that hall in Philadelphia.
A piece of parchment is a piece of old skin. A flag is a piece of colored cloth. A man groans in agony, dying in a dirty room. None of that matters. Not here. Not in America.
For above and beyond faded ink, and strips of colored cloth, and whimpers of pain are ideals that come once in all of history. Once. Never again.
When Abraham Lincoln, now sitting on his throne in that temple of glory, wrote that We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth he was talking about the Declaration. He was talking about the idea that free people consent to be governed by their representatives, not ruled over by people who see them only as a source of revenue. And that one essential ideal is preserved not in marble, or even on parchment, but rather in the hearts of people willing to stand out in the rain and say they will not tolerate this any longer.
There is no marble monument to these ideals. This we will have to do ourselves. We will keep these ideals alive. We will copy them by hand. We will keep these imperishable ideals alive because they keep us alive. And as long as we do this, with our own hands, they – and we – will never die.