The Old Man Of the Mountain
It was a big game for the Warner team in the Kearsarge Mountain League. The first against the Hopkinton Yankees. My son Sam had a good day. Three singles, two walks, played first without an error. Batting second, he stood at the plate with style, a nice rhythmic hip wag as the pitcher wound up. Afterwards, he told me, the first time at the plate with a full count he was so nervous his legs were shaking. I couldn’t tell.
I guess that’s what the great statesman Daniel Webster meant when he said, “in the Mountains of New Hampshire, God Almighty has hung out a sign to show that there He makes men.”
Webster was inspired by the “Old Man of the Mountain,” the revered stone face, carved by nature into the side of a New England mountain, that served as New Hampshire’s state symbol for centuries until it suddenly collapsed last month.
Granite is a metaphor that’s been applied both to our state and its people. Not that real men don’t get scared or cry, but they stand up and face their fear because what they’re doing matters to them.
Webster’s homestead in Salisbury is not far from our home in Warner. His great speeches before the Senate are still well worth reading. “Let us enjoy the fresh air of Liberty and Union,” he said in a famous 1850 speech against secession. “Let us not be pygmies in a case that calls for men.” Of course, Webster’s pleas for Liberty and Union were compromised ultimately by the root evil of slavery, and the nation descended into bloody civil war.
Abraham Lincoln, our first Republican president, said in his first inaugural address on March 4, 1861, that “the Union of these States is perpetual.” The next day, Confederate officials demanded the surrender of Fort Sumter in South Carolina. In another month the war began.
In that war, Lincoln was the first and the last commander in chief to expose himself willingly to enemy fire and risk death.
On July 12, 1864, as Union General Ulysses S. Grant besieged Petersburg outside of Richmond, his Confederate counterpart, General Robert E. Lee, sent 15,000 men under the command of Jubal Early to attack Washington. At Fort Stevens, the center of the attack, Lincoln, in his black suit and stovepipe hat, stood on the ramparts next to General Horatio Wright. Five feet away an army surgeon fell and Wright implored Lincoln to seek cover. The president replied, “The Commander in Chief of the Army mustn’t show any cowardice in the presence of his soldiers, however he may feel.”
As another soldier fell dead three feet away from Lincoln, 23-year-old Captain Oliver Wendell Holmes grabbed Lincoln’s arm and pulled him away yelling, “Get down, you fool.”
What was and is at stake here is not machismo, but heart. To order men to die, Lincoln felt a need to be willing to stand with them. That doesn’t make war good, or wise, or glorious, or change the equation that young men and women and innocent civilians die in the wars started mostly by old men.
But in these days when the commander in chief’s visits to the troops have become morale- and poll-boosting photo-ops far from harm’s way, Lincoln’s example and Webster’s injunction remind us how much we’ve lost.
It’s up to this and the coming generation of women and men from these hills and from the plains beyond to again take a stand. It’s a time when our nation is imperiled both by murderous fanatics abroad and from a fanaticism at home that appears willing to sacrifice our liberties and Constitution in the name of security.
Courage and heart cannot simply be measured by military valor. We need to look inside ourselves and find what matters, and what we must do to protect our nation, our homes, our peace and our freedom.
On July 4, 1851, as the cornerstone was laid for the addition to the Capitol, Webster said: “If the purposes of fanatics and disunionists should be accomplished, the patriotic and intelligent of our generation would seek to hide themselves from the scorn of the world.” But, Webster concluded, “We shall come to no such ignoble end. The ill omened sounds of fanaticism will be hushed.”
In this era that worships youth, old men still have many things to teach.
Roy Morrison is the author of “Tax Pollution, Not Income” (Beshert Books, 2003).