President Obama on President Lincoln
President Barack Obama's Speech at the
11:47 A.M. EST
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you. Thank you. Please, be seated. Thank you very much. Madam Speaker, Leader Reid, members of Congress, dear friends, former colleagues, it is a great honor to be here — a place where
It is fitting that we are holding this celebration here at the Capitol, for the life of this building is bound ever so closely to the times of this immortal President. Built by artisans and craftsmen, but also immigrants and slaves — it was here, in the rotunda, that Union soldiers received help from a makeshift hospital; it was downstairs, in the basement, that they were baked bread to give them strength; and it was in the Senate and House chambers where they slept at night and spent some of their days.
What those soldiers saw when they looked on this building was a very different sight than the one we see today, for it remained unfinished until the end of the war. The laborers who built the dome came to work wondering each day whether that would be their last; whether the metal they were using for its frame would be requisitioned for the war and melted down into bullets. But each day went by without any orders to halt construction, and so they kept on working and kept on building.
When President Lincoln was finally told of all the metal being used here, his response was short and clear: That is as it should be. The American people needed to be reminded, he believed, that even in a time of war, the work would go on; the people's business would continue; that even when the nation itself was in doubt, its future was being secured; and that on that distant day, when the guns fell silent, a national capitol would stand, with a statue of freedom at its peak, as a symbol of unity in a land still mending its divisions.
It is this sense of unity, this ability to plan for a shared future even at a moment where our nation was torn apart, that I reflect on today. And while there are any number of moments that reveal that particular side of this extraordinary man, Abraham Lincoln — that particular aspect of his leadership — there's one that I'd like to share with you today.
In the war's final weeks, aboard Grant's flagship, The River Queen, President Lincoln was asked what was to be done with the rebel armies once General Lee surrendered. With victory at hand,
That was the only way,
And so even as we meet here today, in a moment when we are far less divided than in Lincoln's day, but when we are once again debating the critical issues of our time — and debating them sometimes fiercely — let us remember that we are doing so as servants of the same flag, as representatives of the same people, and as stakeholders in a common future. That is the most fitting tribute we can pay — the most lasting monument we can build — to that most remarkable of men, Abraham Lincoln.