James Forsyth

Lincoln’s words are his memorial

Lincoln's words are his memorial
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The view from the top of the steps on the Lincoln Memorial on in Washington, DC is one of the finest views in the American capital. You look across the reflecting pool, down the national mall to the Washington Monument and to the Capitol beyond. Standing there, at the place where Martin Luther King delivered his ‘I have a dream' speech, you can almost feel the arc of American history bending towards justice. This tilt would not have been possible without Lincoln’s determination to win the Civil War and his realisation as the war continued that slavery could not be contained, as he had argued in his first inaugural, but must be destroyed.

Go inside the memorial and you realise the immense importance of words in American political culture, something which at least partly explains the appeal of Barack Obama. Carved on the south and north walls respectively are the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s second inaugural. These are truly great speeches. Reading them never fails to live your sprits and as with reading the Bible and Shakespeare one finds that phrases one has used for years actually come from there.

There is something rather marvellous about the fact that American schoolchildren have to learn the Gettysburg Address by heart. Government of the people, by the people, for the people works best when the citizenry understand the history and the sacrifices that were necessary to bring them to this state. 

PS Lincoln’s second inaugural contains the most succinct and damming condemnation of what the slaveholders of the South were doing, “wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces.” If you have quarter of an hour, do read the Gettysburg Address and the second inaugural. I promise you, you will feel richer whether it is the first or hundredth time that you have read them.

Written byJames Forsyth

James Forsyth is Political Editor of the Spectator. He is also a columnist in The Sun.

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