George Washington painting

This painting of George Washington hung at Lancaster Public Library. The president preached educating young Americans on "the science of government."

THE ISSUE

Today is Washington’s Birthday, a federal holiday celebrating the first president of the United States, George Washington, who was born on Feb. 22, 1732. The day is known more commonly as Presidents Day, though some states have different names for it. Additionally, some states also use the date to specifically honor President Abraham Lincoln and/or other American presidents or historic figures alongside Washington. Arkansas, for example, uses this holiday to honor African American civil rights activist Daisy Bates alongside the nation’s first president.

This federal holiday that sort of sneaks up on us in mid-winter — there’s no mail today, you say? — is a good day to reflect on the importance of outstanding presidents and leadership in American history.

Especially since we have, gut-wrenchingly, now seen firsthand the immense and potentially lasting damage wrought by a presidency marked by self-adulation, self-service and the purposeful spread of misinformation.

Washington came first, though, and we should appreciate the example he set in paving the way for all the rest. The Founding Father and American Revolutionary War hero was president from April 1789 through March 1797. He was elected unanimously twice via the Electoral College and, as we wrote in an 2017 editorial, led this fledgling nation “through its rocky first eight years, and then wisely handed off the presidency to another.”

That last part is so crucial. As we also noted four years ago, Washington “could have ruled as an imperial president. But he knew that in America, we don’t have kings.”

We have Washington to thank for establishing the model for a peaceful transfer of power, for helping to define the powers (and necessary limits) of the presidency and for championing freedom of speech and religious liberty at our nation’s beginning.

In a column for the Sunday LNP | LancasterOnline Perspective section, staff editor and writer Michael Long described in eloquent detail how Washington was reluctant to even serve as the nation’s first leader:

“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.”

Lincoln’s challenge

Presidents Day in Pennsylvania is also a moment to honor President Lincoln, who led America through its most deadly and divisive internal struggle — and ultimately paid for it with his life.

Lincoln, born on Feb. 12, 1809, preserved the Union and abolished slavery during his presidency, which lasted from March 4, 1861, until his assassination on April 15, 1865.

Long also wrote about Lincoln — a president who “knew too well the perils of a nation whose heart is divided” — in his Sunday column.

Lincoln was inaugurated as “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,” Long wrote.

While Lincoln had hoped to avoid war, he acted decisively when military leadership was called for.

“His well-known thoughtfulness and compassion notwithstanding, Lincoln proved a decisive military leader,” Long wrote. “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 faced a challenge so much different than Washington’s. He was battling “dangerous beliefs that threaten(ed) to tear the fabric of the nation,” Long wrote, but also reached out to those led astray by those dangerous beliefs, showing mercy and patience with his fellow Americans.

We hope that President Joe Biden — who faces a challenge greater than any president in decades — is able to master that same chemistry of steely resolve and compassion toward Americans who have been led astray by deliberate misinformation.

Without Washington, there would be no America.

Without Lincoln, the American experiment might have ended after less than a century.

Now, our nation is just five years from its 250th birthday. But, looking at the past and the present, we realize how fragile this democracy can be. Its continued existence should never be taken for granted.

On this federal holiday for our foremost presidents, we should consider which of Washington’s and Lincoln’s traits we’d most like to see reflected in our current and future elected leaders. 

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