Monday is Presidents Day, a federal holiday honoring two of America’s most venerated heads of state, each of whom took office at moments of unprecedented upheaval.
George Washington, having led America to independence as a general in the Revolutionary War, sat at the head of a government newly inventing itself.
Abraham Lincoln, who wasn’t even listed on the presidential ballot in Southern states, won the White House and saw seven of those states immediately secede from the union. The nation teetered on the precipice of civil war.
Today, as American democracy again feels the uncomfortable tug of uncertainty, the historic leadership of these two dedicated, steady patriots still has the power to inform the office of the chief executive.
In his heart, Washington was not entirely committed to serving as president of the United States. Not at first.
In 1789, the life expectancy of a white male was less than 40 years, and at 57, Washington would be lucky to last another 10. If anyone had earned a placid retirement, the architect of America’s unlikely military victory over England surely had. On 8,000 acres along the Potomac River — his beloved Mount Vernon — Washington cherished his role as gentleman farmer, and he was loath to leave it.
In April of that year, as he headed north for his inauguration and an uncertain future, he wrote in his diary: “About ten o’clock I bade adieu to Mount Vernon, to private life, and to domestic felicity; and with a mind oppressed with more anxious and painful sensations than I have words to express, set out for New York … with the best dispositions to render service to my country in obedience to its call, but with less hope of answering its expectations.”
Despite his reluctance, Washington would invest in his presidency the same energy and attention to detail that he brought to his military campaigns. A staunch advocate for a constitutional republic, Washington believed political power was not taken, but given by the people who consented to be governed by duly elected representatives, and he felt the weight of that obligation.
Washington was bound by the will of the people. He understood a fundamental truth of the office, which in modern parlance translates: “It’s not about you.” What Washington wanted personally came second to what the American people needed immediately.
Here in the 21st century, President Joe Biden, a student of history, appears to be reinvesting in the idea of a president as public servant.
“Today, we celebrate the triumph not of a candidate, but of a cause, the cause of democracy,” Biden said in his inaugural address. “The will of the people has been heard and the will of the people has been heeded.”
In truth, the will of only a little over half the people has been heeded.
Hyperpartisanship, amplified by the echo chambers of the internet and social media, has pushed the body politic to the margins. The partisan identities that divide the country challenge the fundamental American identity that unites it. On bad days, extremist rhetoric portending a new civil war seems only mildly hyperbolic.
Of course, Lincoln knew too well the perils of a nation whose heart is divided.
When he was sworn into office on March 4, 1861, the country was careening inexorably toward civil war, and a month later, Confederate troops would fire the initial salvo on Fort Sumter in South Carolina, touching off a domestic powder keg that would claim the lives of more than 600,000 soldiers over four years.
Lincoln, still hoping to avert war, punctuated his inaugural address with these famous words: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
When lesser angels prevailed and the window for peace closed, Lincoln went to war. His well-known thoughtfulness and compassion notwithstanding, Lincoln proved a decisive military leader. Even his 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, which declared freedom for slaves in the Confederate states, was less the mark of a man morally opposed to slavery (he was) and more the move of a commander in chief seeking to sap the resources of a stubborn foe.
When victory was in hand, Lincoln would again lead with his heart. In his second inaugural address in 1865 —what would prove a bookend to a tragically foreshortened political career — Lincoln urged the country to work toward healing “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” He did not blame the Southern states for holding fast to their cause because he knew their beliefs, while flawed, were genuine.
Lincoln’s Civil War legacy holds a valuable lesson for any president tasked with leading a country at war with itself: Against dangerous beliefs that threaten to tear the fabric of the nation, strike with strength and certitude of purpose; to those led astray by those beliefs, show mercy and patience, because we are all Americans.
Michael Long is a staff editor and writer for LNP | LancasterOnline. He welcomes email at firstname.lastname@example.org.