(Library of Congress)
Not long ago I heard a speech by Michael Beschloss, a Presidential historian and author of Presidential Courage. During a question and answer session, I asked him which President – Washington or Lincoln – faced the biggest challenge coming into office. He deferred, saying that it was difficult to choose, that both had tremendous hurdles to overcome when they stepped into the Presidency.
Washington faced a blank slate – virtually every action he took would set a precedent for his successors to follow. Lincoln faced a country divided. Both knew that their decisions would either secure the continuity of the country or doom it to failure and dissolution.
The reason the legacies of these two men have endured over the centuries isn’t because they didn’t make mistakes. Both made plenty. It wasn’t that they were blessed with great military minds – both blundered before eventually securing victory. What made them great were two things: an unflinching belief in the sanctity of the American ideal, and an unassailable, unquestionable character that defined their very being.
They were unapologetically patriotic, and driven by the belief that the preservation of the principles upon which this country were founded were worth any sacrifice, any risk, to achieve. They saw past rhetoric and division, keeping their eyes focused on what was best for the nation.
Their efforts killed them both. Washington died less than three years after returning to his beloved Mt. Vernon, and Lincoln was assassinated five days after Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox. But their legacies have lived on.
On President’s Day we celebrate all the men who have steered our country through treacherous waters. Not all were great, and not all were popular. But their cumulative efforts resulted in America’s ascendancy into greatness – a nation unsurpassed by any other in the history of man.
Each of us should take pause and reflect on the challenges these men faced, and study how they – and the country – emerged, stronger and wiser for the effort.
We all face our own temptations and hurdles in life; how we address them is important. Like Washington and Lincoln, character matters. An unfettered belief in America matters. It is what made them great, what makes America great, and what will keep us great in the years to come.
President’s Day Trivia
President’s Day was celebrated on Monday to honor all of our Presidents, but it wasn’t always that way. In 1796, during George Washington’s last year in office, a holiday was declared to honor his birthday (Feb 11 or 22, depending on which calendar you use), and the official title still bears his name (OPM). After Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, Congress held a memorial service on his birthday (Feb 12), and a new tradition was born.
It wasn’t until 1968 that both birthdays were consolidated into one federal holiday to be celebrated on the third Monday of February. Over the years the event has expanded by tradition to include all Presidents (patriotism.org), but the official name of the day is still Washington’s Birthday.