Please do not re-fight the American Civil War/War Between the States in the comments section. Nor do I want to debate if that episode were a civil war or a conflict between two different countries.
February used to be known for Valentine’s Day, George Washington’s Birthday, and Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. I remember cutting out profile silhouettes of both presidents to put on the grade-school bulletin board, and being very confused because I thought they were black (since all we used was black paper.) Sometime between first grade and college, their birthdays were smushed together and became Presidents’ Day.
Over the past ten or fifteen years, probably longer in academic circles, Washington seems to have lost his luster while Lincoln gained in stature, and then vanished. Washington used to be upheld as a model of conduct, the first and one of the best presidents, a man who never lied, who labored without hope of personal gain, humble and modest, with wooden teeth. The wooden teeth disappeared first and were always more legend than fact. Now he is the first president, a slave holder who should have known better, a hypocrite who wanted the finest in life and wanted adulation and praise, a slave owner, wise but not wise enough, a slave owner, more interesting than a lot of his portraits suggest, and a slave owner.
Lincoln was, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Great Emancipator, a man who tried to heal the wounds of the Civil War/War Between the States once the fighting stopped, the man who freed the slaves, wise, self-taught with a serious work ethic, tragic, and a model of a war-time president, a faithful Christian, and a martyr. Now, depending on which historians you read, he is either the precursor to the modern over-reaching State and a would-be autocrat, or a good president who did not do enough to liberate the slaves and even though he did issue the Emancipation Proclamation, he was racist so he’s not really such a great person. But yeah, he was self-taught and worked hard, although not as hard as legend suggests. And he is a model of how to cope with mental illness and chronic depression. But he was racist.
Does anyone else get the feeling that if Lincoln and Washington were not Progressive, modern thinkers, they are horrible, terrible, no-good, very bad people who should be set aside as models and examples?
I freely admit, of the two, I have always liked George Washington more. He was the first, he knew he was setting many precedents, and he seems to have done his best to live up to the ideals of his time. Yes, he owned slaves, at a time when the idea that owning people was inherently wrong had just started to percolate out of the Society of Friends and other radical groups. He enjoyed pomp and luxury, in a time where visual culture was in some ways more powerful than today, and pageants and ceremony carried far more weight. He also balanced that with the apparent lessons of Rome and what happens when leaders lose their virtue. He wasn’t a saint.
Lincoln always seemed too perfect, at least as taught in grade school. He always did his homework (ach-paTHOOY!). In some ways, Lincoln may have been near peak hagiography at that time, and some of the books I read then treated him almost on a par with Jesus, certainly up there with Peter, Paul, and Moses. Now, some libertarians and civil-liberties purists see him as the man who set some very bad precedents such as suspending habeas corpus and other Constitutional rights during the war, although the later Supreme Court cases over those acts deserve some of the credit for the legal precedent. He didn’t do enough to free the slaves faster. And he, like many people, believed that black people as a whole could not assimilate with the larger society and should be sent back to Africa or allowed to remain in segregated areas, where they couldn’t compete with free white men for jobs. Individuals might rise above their birth, but blacks in general were either inferior or just too different to assimilate. Apparently he did not act on those beliefs the way Woodrow Wilson would in the 1910s, but he wrote and thought them, and so he’s condemned.
There is much to admire with both men. The Gettysburg Address and some of Lincoln’s other writings still strike cords in the human heart and inspire people to be better, wiser, more forgiving and appreciative. Washington is still a model of a statesman who looked at the present and the future while trying to remember the lessons of the past as he understood them.
In Katherine Kurtz’s secret history Two Crowns for America, there is a scene where Washington is offered the chance to become America’s monarch. Washington refuses and begs to know why he is being tested so hard. One of the characters replies, “Untested virtue is little worth. True virtue must be tried and proven” (p. 343) We moderns seem to forget that if the men of the past were not saints, it is not because they knew what we know and rejected it. Nor are we so good, unless our own virtues have been tried and tested. Lincoln’s and Washington’s were, as were the characters of many men and women of their generations. Lincoln may have given in to the temptation to use the big stick of government power. He also had a true civil war on his hands, and people in his country who really were acting against it.
Putting the two together, and setting aside their holidays in favor of other things during February seems unfortunate. They were different men in different times facing different challenges. We should honor them both, but not together.
And I would like to wish long-time reader—and friend—Mike W. and his bride a very happy anniversary!