June 15, 1939 [Young Mr. Lincoln]

Everything fell into place when Henry Fonda's Young Mr. Lincoln asserted, "I know what's right and what's wrong." Despite the putty nose and painted brow, the homespun solemnity of his pauses and his living-statue posture, Fonda relieved me of the burden of--well, everything, and wrapped me snug in moral certainty.

This is what attracts me most to Lincoln--his desire to live in a world with consequences, of reactions to actions: a moral world, that is, one worthy of tragedy. And as he pursues that desire, he is often more concerned with the Declaration of Independence than the Constitution, more "eager"--if one can use such a word for that face, the sad, determined cast to his features in the Memorial--to assert principles rather than fleeting practices. And while he does not wear the solid armor of the abolitionists, he is able to assert, as he did in his debate with Douglas at Knox College,
"I confess myself as belonging to that class in the country who contemplate slavery as a moral, social and political evil, having due regard for its actual existence amongst us and the difficulties of getting rid of it in any satisfactory way, and to all the Constitutional obligations which have been thrown about it; but, nevertheless, desire a policy that looks to the prevention of it as a wrong, and looks hopefully to the time when as a wrong it may come to an end."
This is the Lincoln that Fonda evokes, and the nose seems suddenly strong, and the pauses heavy with the weight of all that slaughter to come--and yes, Lincoln will always be a statue, as he is in the Memorial--where I've seen people enter, and fall silent, and take on the look Lincoln gives us in his chair, seated but not comfortable--like Fonda sprawled over every piece of furniture that won't hold him--and he is happy only when he stands at the melancholy river, and at ease only when he trudges up the hill we made him climb--as we ourselves climb today, here in the United States and who knows where else--soon, and with the same hope that when we're at the top we'll know the difference between right and wrong.


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