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The stories behind all the Abraham Lincoln shout-outs at Biden's inauguration

The 1861 Abraham Lincoln inauguration.

SMITHSONIAN/TNS

By GILLIAN BROCKELL | The Washington Post | Published: January 21, 2021

The National Mall was nearly empty Wednesday as President Biden was sworn into office. The city was under tight security after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, and the coronavirus pandemic makes any large gatherings risky. But perhaps the emptiness allowed those speaking at the ceremony a clearer view of the huge figure at the other end of that expanse: The statue of Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln, who guided the nation through the Civil War, received an extraordinary number of shout-outs during the inauguration. And his portrait now hangs in the Biden Oval Office alongside George Washington, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.

Here is the history behind the Lincoln references made Wednesday.

The Capitol dome

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., in her opening remarks, told this story about Lincoln:

"When Abraham Lincoln gave his first inaugural address in front of this Capitol, the dome was only partially constructed, braced by ropes of steel. He promised he would finish it. He was criticized for spending funds on it during the Civil War. To those critics he replied, 'If the people see the Capitol going on, it is a sign we intend the Union shall go on.' And it did, and it will."

So that's a great allegory, but did it actually happen? Amazingly, yes.

The original Capitol had a wood and copper dome on it, according to the Office of the Senate Historian. As the nation grew, so did the building; eventually the small dome looked out of place. In 1856, construction got underway for a grander dome built with cast iron and white marble.

The dome was only half done when the Civil War began. The Capitol engineer — who was soon to become Lincoln's quartermaster general — ordered construction to cease, saying the government "has no money to spend except in self-defense."

But the ironworkers who were building the frame refused to quit. Instead, for a time, they worked for free.

Speaking of working for free, enslaved laborers were also involved in the construction of the dome. Only after the D.C. Emancipation Act was passed in April 1862 did they become wage earners.

Some thought the construction should cease and the iron frame be melted down to use for weaponry, but just as Klobuchar said, Lincoln argued: "If people see the Capitol going on, it is a sign we intend the Union shall go on."

The dome was finished in time for Lincoln's second inauguration.

'With charity for all'

Father Leo O'Donovan, who gave the invocation at the Biden ceremony, quoted from Lincoln's second inaugural speech with this line about the power of love:

"Its path is to give ever more of itself. Today, it is called American patriotism, born not of power and privilege but of care for the common good, with malice toward none, and with charity for all.'"

That last bit — "with malice toward none, and with charity for all" — is pure Lincoln. When his second term started in March 1865, it was clear that it was only a matter of time before the Confederacy fell. Lincoln was trying to set a course for how to deal with reincorporating insurrectionists back into the American project.

The full line is: "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds."

It was a message similar to the one Biden had in his speech, after what he described as our "uncivil war."

'My whole soul is in it'

For Biden's part, he gave the Great Emancipator a wink and a nod. In one line on the nation's current challenges, he declared, "Our better angels have always prevailed." This is a borrowed phrase from Lincoln's first inaugural address, when the Confederate states had seceded but all-out war had not yet begun, and many hoped civil war could be avoided.

Lincoln said, "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."

Biden described another day in Lincoln's first term, Jan. 1, 1863, when Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation: "When he put pen to paper, the president said, and I quote: 'If my name ever goes down into history, it'll be for this act. And my whole soul is in it.' My whole soul is in it. Today, on this January day, my whole soul is in this: bringing America together, uniting our people, uniting our nation, and I ask every American to join me in this cause."

This story also passes a fact check. Lincoln had evolving views on slavery and what to do about it throughout his life, but by the time it he readied himself to sign the proclamation, he was resolute.

His hands, however, would not cooperate. They trembled violently, and he didn't want to sign with a shaky signature, according to Smithsonian magazine. So he waited three hours, until he could calm himself, then signed steadily, and said, "That will do."

A short time later, he remarked, "I never in my life felt more certain that I was doing right than I do in signing this paper. If my name goes into history, it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it."