Wednesday, March 11, 2009

thank God we have a government

Photo: Smithsonian National Museum of American History

Jonathan Dillon April 13- 1861 Fort Sumpter was attacked by the rebels on the above date. J Dillon April 13- 1861 Washington thank God we have a government Jonth Dillon.

The inscription left behind within the inner workings of Abraham Lincoln's gold watch when, on April 13, 1861, the watchmaker who was repairing it received word of the first shots being fired at Fort Sumter, as reported by this morning's New York Times.

Lincoln's watch was opened yesterday in a public ceremony at the National Museum of American History in Washington D.C. to verify whether the story, related across generations, was true.

Like a game of Operator, the original inscription turned out to be quite different than the one related, which collective memory recalled more eloquently as:

The first gun is fired. Slavery is dead. Thank God we have a President who at least will try.

The actual inscription burns half of its character count relating the inscriber's name -- three times -- and the date twice. (The first shots of the Civil War were in truth fired on April 12th, but it took time for news to travel in 1861.)

Incidentally, if the inscriber's name and date had been handled as metadata, the way they would be in a digital context, the same way blog posts are stamped with the time they're created and the identity of the blogger, then Jonathan Dillon's inscription would fit neatly within the 140 character count limitations of a tweet.

Importantly, he carved what he had to say into an artifact that he could reasonably expect would endure and would be carried to places of importance in Lincoln's pocket. Hidden, perhaps, from its owner, but the story didn't remain buried: he told the story to whomever would listen; to his family, to his friends and even to the New York Times in 1906.

In the NPR segment on the event you can hear the awed pride in the voice of Dillon's great great grandson, Douglas Stiles, as he acknowledges the impertinence of his ancestor's action, saying: "My goodness that's Lincoln's watch. My ancestor put graffiti on it."

The story goes that Dillon was the only Union sympathizer working in the watch shop, which gives his inscription even more poignance: unable to voice his emotion to his immediate community, he broadcast his sentiment to the larger world.

This bears all the hallmarks of a tweet -- or perhaps a tweet bears all the hallmarks of a furtive inscription inside Lincoln's watch. Or of graffiti scribbled on an historical monument; or a petroglyph carved into a rock face. Each of these is a brief declaration that simply states: "I am here, right now, inside this larger landscape where these things are happening -- and this is what I think. This is how I feel."

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