Presidents Day is unique among American holidays in providing the opportunity to remember and appreciate why George Washington and Abraham Lincoln — whose birthdays fall in February — were the two greatest U.S. presidents.
While Washington was the founding father of the United States, Lincoln would later save the nation from division and collapse — bringing an end to the Civil War and the scourge of slavery. In short, Lincoln saved the republic that Washington made possible. And two remarkable men they were, whose insight and wisdom is timeless and as relevant today as it was in their times many years ago.
George Washington had proven himself through the Revolutionary War, raising up the ad-hoc colonial militia into a fighting force worthy of the title: Continental Army. In the first few years of engagement there were more setbacks than successes against the British. But Washington’s men were willing to sacrifice and press on even when their cause appeared hopeless because they saw in their general a compelling moral excellence. He deeply cared for his men’s wellbeing, led by example, and continuously put his life on the line — unhesitatingly and calmly charging to the front — seemingly oblivious to fear. But Washington also knew when to protect his troops in retreat so as to be able to fight another day.
In the end, his execution of key strategic victories and his will to wear down, outlast and demoralize the more numerous and professional British forces paid off. More than six years after he first engaged the British in Boston, the stage was set with the help of the French army and navy, to deliver a final knockout blow and victory at Yorktown, Virginia in October of 1781.
General Washington had pulled off the impossible: that of leading the inexperienced and poorly equipped Continental Army to defeating Great Britain — then the world’s most powerful empire and advanced military power. Washington overcame the overwhelming odds on the ground with a spiritual power that combined faith in the cause of American independence with unwavering perseverance, making possible a final victory little short of miraculous.
Four years after peace was formalized through the Paris Peace Treaty of 1783, a second convention was summoned in Philadelphia to draft a new Constitution — attended by George Washington, James Madison, George Mason, Alexander Hamilton and Ben Franklin and some 50 others, eight of whom had signed the Declaration of Independence.
Washington’s reputation for undaunted courage in battle, dedication to his troops, reverence for the Almighty and personal modesty preceded him to Philadelphia, and he was the unanimous choice to serve as president of the Constitutional Convention. And, not surprisingly, after the Constitution’s ratification by the states, on February 4, 1789, the nation’s first Electoral College unanimously chose George Washington to be the first president of the United States. He was reelected unanimously for a second term, and the American people clamored for him to stay on for a third, but the founding father knew it was time to step aside.
Washington’s final gift to his country was his Farewell Address, calling it “a warning from a departing friend.” Prophetic in nature, it was a penetrating articulation of the key threats to freedom and the republican form American democracy: the failure of institutions to keep people informed and enlightened, the problems of factions and hyper-partisanship, and the decline of religious obligation and national morality. So impressive was it, that Washington’s Farewell Address was more widely printed than the Declaration of Independence.
That parting exposition from Washington specifically described the problems facing the American republic in the need “for enlightened public opinion,” and the harm from “the alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge… [which] serves always to distract the public councils…enfeeble the public administration…agitate the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms.” Washington also believed that the inner strength and morality of the nation could not be sustained without religion. On this, the Farewell Address is as relevant today as it was 222 years ago, wherein Washington asked, “Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice?”
Abraham Lincoln was born in 1809, some 12 years after Washington left office, He would be elected 16th president of the United States in 1860, and immediately confront the greatest crisis in American history with the nation being literally torn in two as a result of numerous states asserting their rights to secede from the Union, claiming Constitutional state’s rights to manage the issues associated with slavery and its abolition.
What makes Lincoln one of the greatest presidents was in part that he embodied the American Dream, being born in poverty and self-taught with almost no formal schooling. Growing up in a Christian home, he was acquainted with Biblical teachings, but when he came of age he didn’t join a church because he took issue with denominational dogmas seemingly at odds with Christ’s essential teachings. Lincoln was also a late bloomer, holding many jobs before deciding to run for the Illinois state assembly and pursuing the practice of law when he was 26.
Lincoln’s address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, when he was just 29, expressed similar concerns about internal threats to America’s sovereignty that were raised by Washington. There Lincoln said, “If [danger] ever reach us it must spring up amongst us; it cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen we must live through all time or die by suicide.”
Perhaps more significant than the humble circumstances of his upbringing, the greatness of Lincoln was clearly in his mind, his moral compass, and his trust in God in the face of difficulty. Confronting the greatest crisis in American history upon taking the oath of office — 72 years after Washington — Lincoln declared, “Intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him, who has never yet forsaken this favored land, are still competent to adjust, in the best way, all our present difficulty.”
Lincoln knew the solution to the challenges he faced with secession, Civil War, and the abolition of slavery were beyond his or anyone’s capability. He described the Declaration of Independence as a beacon to provide clarity and instill courage, “so that truth, and justice, and mercy, and all the humane and Christian virtues might not be extinguished from this land; so that no man would hereafter dare to limit and circumscribe the great principles on which the temple of liberty was being built.”
Gettysburg was a victory and turning point for Lincoln’s Union forces on that long and agonizing road to final peace. The bloodiest battle, it was also a turning point in the personal life of Lincoln, who acknowledged that, “when I went to Gettysburg and saw the graves of thousands of our soldiers, I then and there consecrated myself to Christ.”
Lincoln often said that the duration of the Civil War was in God’s hands, but in the Gettysburg address he left no room for doubt about the final outcome, that America would, “have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
In Washington as the founder and Lincoln as the savior we are confronted with qualities of character that made America great and exceptional. Presidents Day offers us the opportunity to recapture and celebrate those virtues. It also affords us time to reflect on both presidents’ observations that citizens need to moderate partisan behavior for the lasting common good, and to maintain heightened vigilance to preserve freedom and the rule of law.
Scott Powell is senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and teaches in the graduate program in Global Development at Palm Beach Atlantic University. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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