By Jeff Wills
For over 25 years I’ve been fortunate to have worked in one of the most unique and impressive, if sometimes notorious, places on the planet: The U.S. Capitol or “Capitol Hill.” I realize there are many negative things we could say about the U.S. Congress, I suspect that’s always been the case, but if we’re honest with our mostly hypocritical and righteous selves we’d admit the problems are just a reflection of us, the mostly fickle, many times ill informed voter. But enough of that. I’ll save a elaboration on those thoughts for another time.
For now, I’d like to note my thoughts on an experience I had at the Library of Congress recently. But before I go on about that let me provide some background.
Let’s go back a little in history for a moment. In the lead up to Abraham Lincoln’s first inauguration (March 4, 1861), the federal government believed there was an assassination plot against President-elect Lincoln. Because of this, the President-elect arrived in Washington DC, via train, under the cover of darkness. In the rush to get Lincoln into Washington during the night, Lincoln’s baggage was misplaced and along with it the Lincoln family Bible. The bags and the Bible would not make it to Washington in time for the inauguration and swearing-in ceremony at the U.S. Capitol Building.
Saving the day was the Clerk of the Supreme Court, William Thomas Carroll, who provided a Bible he’d kept for official occasions. And it was this Bible, which Abraham Lincoln would place his left hand on and take the official oath of office, that became known as The Lincoln Bible. The only other U.S President to use the Lincoln Bible for the oath of office was President Barack Obama for both of his swearing-in ceremonies in 2009 and 2013. And then recently, September 14, 2016, the newly appointed Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, used the Lincoln Bible for her swearing-in ceremony. It was just prior, literally maybe 20 minutes, to Carla Hayden’s swearing-in that I got my chance for a personal viewing of the Lincoln Bible.
Reverence. In some sense, I think, reverence for events, people, or things that serve as important connections to the past is a waning virtue right now in our history. The “mystic chords of memory,” to quote Lincoln, connect us to a shared fate and a shared destiny.
I believe, have always felt, that some things should invoke a feeling of respect for great things and people and the sacrifices made in forming this great, if not perfect, nation. There’s a good reason the constitution begins with the words “to form a more perfect union.” A perfect union wasn’t possible. From the very beginning the founding of this nation was a compromise deal. The nation’s birth was only the beginning of a task, a continual building and improvement upon an experiment in democracy. The task of improving, of making a more perfect union, would always be the task of those who’d inherited this Democratic Republic. Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, and the civil war brought on by it, were the first great test to determine whether this experiment in democracy, this union, this “nation so conceived,” could be saved and preserved through the growing pains of forming a more perfect union. Lincoln and his vision, his leadership, thank God, prevailed.
And so there I was, standing there listening to Mark (a Library curator and guardian of the Bible) give me a brief history of the Lincoln Bible. I actually stepped up to the table and stood for a moment almost as if I were viewing a deceased friend or loved one at a wake. I looked down on the Bible and thought of the so many events and people that have come and gone since Lincoln laid his left hand on this Bible and took the oath of office and then, after his destiny complete, passed into “the ages.”
What immediately grabs you about the Lincoln Bible is how small it is. The Bible is an 1853 Oxford Press KJV edition. Its 6 inches long by 4 inches wide and about 1.75 inches thick. The Bible is bounded in a burgundy red velvet with gilt edges. The front cover is stained, worn, and faded with blackened stains along the spines edge. I thought of Lincoln’s left hand resting on the Bible as he began to recite the oath, the emotions he must have felt, and how his mind must have been occupied with the gathering storm of rebellion. And I thought of all the subsequent people who’ve held this Bible and reflected on Lincoln, his times, and what his presidency and leadership meant to the nation.
For those brief but solemn moments I felt privileged for this opportunity to be touched by those mystic chords of memory.