By David Kelly
For generations, Americans have held both Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln in high esteem, ranking them in many instances as our nation’s top two presidents. Their likenesses adorn our currency, coin as well as logos for companies, organizations, stocks, insurance and so forth. Not to mention their names being stamped out across this nation as the namesake of cities, towns, counties, schools and more. They’re American heroes and known to most of us as great men who helped shape this nation.
Washington and Lincoln have little in common other than sharing the top spot of our nation’s most beloved presidents list. The fiction that has been written about these men and their lives became folklore long before any of us were alive. Washington cutting down the cherry tree or Lincoln freeing the slaves comes to mind.
It is not folklore that placed these men into their heralded posts, living forever in American history. It was the reality of the world that they lived in and the consequences of their actions as well as of those who supported them that sealed their fates. For Washington, the struggle for American independence and his military experiences paved his path to the presidency. Lincoln’s humble start in life to becoming a skilled lawyer and debater elevated him on his journey to the highest office of the land.
Both men wanted the great experiment of the United States to succeed and prosper, but with completely different visions of that reality.
Washington had a commanding presence and was quite dignified and preoccupied with his awesome responsibilities as a military leader and president. He was not one given to small talk but was gracious and knew how to pick and choose his battles both on the field and as president. Washington relied on his leadership skills to form the nation’s first executive offices (cabinet) including the Secretaries of State, Treasury, War, as well as Attorney General and Postmaster General. His genius in knowing that he could not be successful in leading a new nation without the help of people he trusted and in positions of expertise strengthened the foundation of our new country.
In a letter he wrote in 1783 he elaborated, “Be courteous to all but intimate with few, and let those few be well tried before you give them your confidence; true friendship is a plant of slow growth, and must undergo and withstand the shocks of adversity before it is entitled to appellation.”
Washington was our first and only president who was not part of a political party. There were no political parties in 1789 when he took his oath of office. He despised political affiliations; sharing his disdain during his farewell address in 1796:
However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.
Lincoln was a product of what Washington warned us about. Lincoln had a strong appreciation for the motivation of others. He was resilient, forthright, unassuming, and instinctively cautious. He was friendly but kept his true feelings to himself. Lincoln biographer Josiah G. Holland wrote:
The writer has conversed with multitudes of men who claimed to know Mr. Lincoln intimately; yet there are not two of the whole number who agree in their estimate of him. It was rare that he exhibited what was religious in him; and he never did this at all, except when he found the nature and character that were sympathetic with that aspect and element of his character. A great deal of his best, deepest, largest life he kept almost constantly from view, because he would not expose it to the eyes and apprehension of the careless multitude.
The main challenge to Lincoln as president was his effort to keep the nation united as the Southern states chose to secede from the union. These were difficult times for the president and his desire to save the union led to hard decisions. One was Lincoln’s cold regard to the Constitution and the rights of the people when he suspended Habeas Corpus, which led to the imprisoning of thousands of people who spoke out against Lincoln and the war.
Lincoln’s views on slavery changed over time to suit the needs of his political success. At his inauguration in 1860 he said. “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so” In1862 he wrote, ”My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery.”
Then in 1863 Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation which only freed the slaves in Southern held lands. This was more of an insurance policy to keep England from entering the war on the side of the Confederacy by introducing the moral issue of slavery. It’s too bad that his proclamation wasn’t worth anything more than the paper it was written on as the Union General Grant kept his personal slaves in bondage throughout the war until the ratification of the 13th amendment which ended slavery after war had ended in 1866. Grant stated, “Good help is so hard to come by these days.”
Lincoln accomplished what he felt he had to do to preserve the Union. His tactics were definitely more of a tyrant than of a leader of a free nation, but his vision did prevail. Had Lincoln been unsuccessful in his efforts to keep the union intact or Washington failed in winning the revolution and building a solid foundation for our federal government, these two heroes of American history would be no more than common men of their times.