George Washington and Abraham Lincoln

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.

Thank You.

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!

9 thoughts on “George Washington and Abraham Lincoln

  1. Washington was the hero of the infancy of our nation. (What should we do? How should we do it?) Lincoln was the hero of the rebellious teenager phase of our nation. (Why should I? You aren’t the boss of me!)

  2. “He wasn’t a saint.”

    A fact that should be remembered is true for all our leaders. Unfortunately, though, it’s only applied to those who don’t have the proper politics du jour.

      • Smoothbore, for us traditionalists. “Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen” comes to mind … got a bombard handy 🙂

        Both men, and many mediocre to good presidents, operated under “minimal harm” procedures
        . They mostly recognized mortal fallibility and imperfect knowledge, and tried solving the problem as simply as possible. No addiction yet to technocracy, so make it work for plain people – Fred, Joan, Tom, Alice – and not “the people.”

  3. I think I’m a few years younger than you, and I have memories of cutting out Lincoln and Washington. I decided to do a little digging online and it looks like the official federal holiday is still Washington’s Birthday (even when not observed on his actual birthday). The states have proclaimed it a state holiday under a variety of names, sometimes Presidents Day, sometimes just Washington’s Birthday (or variants), sometimes including Washington and Lincoln, and with some other exciting variations out there.

  4. Yep, different men, different eras, both contributed in ways that are still being felt today! And the only ‘accurate’ portrait of George Washington is in the Washington Masonic Memorial in Arlington, VA.

  5. Older memories may not be accurate, but I’m pretty sure we used to get a Confederate holiday off when I was in school in Macon, late 1950s, early 1960s.
    I think it was Robert E Lee’s Birthday, but it might have been Confederate Memorial Day. There were still a couple of Confederate veterans alive then. They had been drummer boys.
    But, we really loved Abraham Lincoln. Might have been the civilizing influence of the Cub Scouts, I don’t really know, but EVERY kid adored Abraham Lincoln, even though we sang songs about George Washington and how he went galloping. Don’t remember any songs about Abe.
    I don’t think we are going to have to wait a century for OUR reputation to be besmirched. It seems to me that we are already demonstrating The Crazy Years in action.

  6. Both Washington and Lincoln worked hard to be virtuous as well as good leaders, and both of them were very human and endearing in the way they went about it. That used to be something of the point — you too can work hard and become great.

Comments are closed.