Feb. 22, 2013
Today is George Washington’s Birthday. It used to be a holiday, a unifying national celebration of the Father of our Country.
We used to teach children a lot about George Washington. When I told Ed Meese a few years back that an online poll of Americans had voted Ronald Reagan the greatest American, Mr. Meese almost spilled his coffee.
“He didn’t think so! He thought George Washington was the greatest American.” Mr. Meese sadly shook his head over what was happening to civic education in our country.
It’s especially poignant to remember Ronald Reagan’s Farewell Address to the Nation. In January 1989, the president warned of a loss of our national memory. He was the only president known to have died of Alzheimer’s. George F. Will poetically compared that dreaded disease to aMidwestblizzard in which all the familiar signposts and landmarks are gradually lost to view in a mental whiteout.
Before his long goodbye, though, President Reagan said: “If we forget what we did, we won't know who we are. I'm warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit.”
One way we can see the erosion of the American spirit is through the loss of civic ceremony and a sense of our history as a people. I would point to Presidents Day as a symptom of this loss. What is this thing? Formally, it is still the federal holiday dedicated to George Washington, but what is it in the minds of the people? Is it a celebration of the presidency? Are we really celebrating James Buchanan and Millard Fillmore along with Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton? I hope not.
I was often asked by my college history students to name the greatest President of the United States. I would answer: Washington & Lincoln. No, the greatest one president. Washington & Lincoln, I would stubbornly reply.
Often, among conservatives, Washington is tops. Among liberals, it’s usually Lincoln (once they get past that inconvenient truth that Lincoln was a—shudder—Republican).
There are of course many differences between Washington and Lincoln. Washington was a wealthy planter, one of the richest. He held slaves all his life. We don’t want to celebrate that, for sure. But as president, he signed Congress’ reaffirmation of the Northwest Ordinance, which banned slavery from a vast western reserve of lands.
He also freed his slaves on his death, thus setting an example for the country. If every slaveholder had done what Washington did, there would have been no Civil War.
Washington was clearly the most unifying figure ever to occupy the presidency. He was twice elected unanimously in the Electoral College. Even Washington’s opponents, and he did have some, generally tried to blame Alexander Hamilton or John Jay for some of the administration’s policies they disliked.
If Washington was the most unifying, Abraham Lincoln was the most divisive. A bloody four-year struggle ensued almost from the day his victory was announced. That says more about us as a people, however, than it does about Lincoln. The great Southern diarist Mary Chesnut probably had it right when she pegged the root cause of the Civil War: It was “because we hated each other so.” Tragically true.
Lincoln had great faith in the power of reason to appeal to “the better angels of our nature.” He thought surely we could all recognize what Washington and the other Founders recognized: Slavery is an evil and should not be extended. But by 1860, millions had been swayed by the seductive arguments of John C. Calhoun that slavery was “a positive good” for slaveholder and slave alike.
Lincoln playfully exploded the illogic of that argument. Though volumes have been written to prove the good of slavery, he said, we seldom hear of “the man who seeks the good of slavery by becoming a slave himself.”
If only those swayed millions had heard Lincoln’s arguments. His speeches, his writings were effectively banned across eleven states. In the election of 1860, his name did not even appear on the ballot in ten states.
The reason to oppose Presidents Day is because we cannot focus on forty-four presidents. They become a blur. Ronald Reagan understood this when he led the commemoration of the Fortieth Anniversary of D-Day. He went to Normandy and invited grizzled veterans of the invasion, brave airborne rangers, to sit before him. “These are the boys of Pointe-du-Hoc,” he intoned, “these are the men who liberated a continent and left the vivid air signed with their honor.”
Scholar Douglas Brinkley understood Reagan’s sense of the dramatic. Just as Shakespeare’s Henry V immortalized “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” Ronald Reagan let those Boys of Pointe-du-Hoc stand for the millions who fought to free Western Europe in World War II.
By celebrating Washington & Lincoln, we give the honor due to our Founding Father and our Redeemer President. It was Lincoln who, in freeing the slaves, assured freedom to the free. And it was clear throughout his presidency that Lincoln revered Washington above all his predecessors. Lincoln fought for “a vast future;” Washington secured this haven for “millions yet unborn.” We should honor both of our greatest leaders and celebrate Washington & Lincoln Day.