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The Meaning of Presidents’ Day

The Meaning of Presidents’ Day

George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are worth remembering—now more than ever

Michael Mandelbaum

Presidents’ Day, which falls on February 21 this year, combines two previous holidays: the birthday of America’s first President, George Washington, on February 22, which was a national holiday beginning in the 19th century; and the birthday of the country’s sixteenth chief executive, Abraham Lincoln, on February 12, which was for many years an official holiday in Illinois and was widely observed elsewhere. In recent decades, as Presidents’ Day has turned into a midwinter break, a three-day weekend, and the occasion for special sales in stores, the two men whose lives and public careers gave rise to it have all but disappeared from it. Indeed, these days Americans seem to encounter Washington and Lincoln, the two most important Presidents in American history, mainly as profiles on coins—the quarter and the penny, respectively—that are being made increasingly obsolete by digitization and inflation, and as the targets of woke vigilantes seeking to take down statues of them and remove their names from schools.

That is unfortunate. Leaders warrant continuing public recognition when what they did is of lasting significance; and they are worthy of being honored when they displayed character traits of enduring value. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln qualify on both counts. The two did more than any other individuals to make the United States of America one of the most successful political creations in all of human history; and both were men of exemplary public character. They deserve to be remembered, and keeping their memories alive might even improve the civic health of the United States.

Their greatest achievements came as war leaders. They guided the country to successful outcomes in its two nation-defining conflicts: Washington in the Revolutionary War from 1775 to 1783 and Lincoln in the Civil War from 1861 to 1865. Each was indispensable to his country’s cause. Without Washington the United States would not have become independent when and as it did; without Lincoln the United States could easily have divided into two (or conceivably more) separate, radically dissimilar, and mutually hostile countries.

Neither man became commander-in-chief with the experience necessary for the task. Both had to learn on the job, and did so in impressive fashion. Washington had been a soldier—that is why the Continental Congress chose him to lead the Continental Army—but had never commanded troops or dealt with logistical challenges on the scale that the war against Great Britain entailed. Lincoln had had even less exposure to military matters before 1861: he had served as a volunteer in the Illinois militia for a few months in 1832 but never saw combat. He borrowed books on warfare from the Library of Congress to teach himself about the military arts and also spent time with his commanders and soldiers in the field.

The education that both acquired paid off: each led his country to success in no small part because, after trial and error, he hit upon the appropriate strategy. Washington went to war in search of fame and glory, which meant engaging in battles. He learned, however, that this was an unwise kind of campaign to conduct against the superior British forces. Despite his personal inclination, therefore, he shifted to a defensive approach, putting up resistance to the British but avoiding a decisive battle that the colonials were likely to lose. The Americans were the weaker party but could win by avoiding defeat. With a huge assist from their French ally, that is what they eventually accomplished.

Lincoln found himself in the opposite strategic position. The Union had greater military potential than the Confederacy but the Confederacy could win by avoiding losing. The sixteenth President came to understand that victory required smashing the Confederate Army, although this would inevitably take a heavy and painful toll in casualties. After several missteps he found a general, Ulysses S. Grant, who could and did carry out that strategy.

Washington and Lincoln were able to steer their military undertakings to successful conclusions for another reason: each proved to be effective at discharging the most important and often most difficult responsibility that falls to any American commander-in-chief: keeping the country committed to fighting the war. In both cases, as in a number of the country’s other conflicts, an attack on Americans outraged the public and aroused support for fighting: the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, in the first instance, the Confederate attack on the federal military facility, Fort Sumter, near Charleston, South Carolina, on April 12–13, 1861, in the second. As each war proceeded, however, and as with other American conflicts, public enthusiasm for the fight diminished. Washington and Lincoln had to face the continuing possibility of a shortfall of manpower; but each managed to muster enough fighting strength—Washington in part through his high repute among his troops, Lincoln by the simple eloquence of his appeals to the country—to see their respective conflicts through to victory.

Their common approach to the postwar period was also exemplary. Despite the bitterness of the wars just ended, they sought to conciliate their former adversaries. Washington understood that as cordial relations as were possible with Great Britain, the world’s leading maritime power and still the new country’s largest trading partner, would serve American interests. Lincoln, in his Second Inaugural Address and even as the Civil War still raged, urged the people of the United States to approach the future “with malice toward none” and with “charity for all” and to seek to “bind up the nation’s wounds.”

George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are also worthy of national remembrance because of their common devotion to the principles and practices of democracy. Each made a major contribution to the origins and perpetuation of democratic government in the United States.

Washington acquired such prestige and popularity, first as a general and then as the nation’s first President—he twice received every electoral vote, the only one of the forty-six Presidents to achieve this distinction—that he could have retained the presidency for the rest of his life. He refused to do so, thereby affirming the principle of republican rather than monarchical government. At the end of the Revolutionary War, he resigned his commission and went home to Virginia. As President he declined a third term and once again returned to his estate at Mount Vernon, thirteen miles south of the city that bears his name and became the capital of the country he did so much to found.

Lincoln’s main purpose in waging the Civil War was to preserve the political system that Washington’s generation had created. In his address on the battlefield at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania—the most famous speech in American history—he said that the reason for the terrible sacrifice the war had exacted was to ensure that “government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.” Like other wartime Presidents he infringed on civil liberties by suspending the right of habeas corpus, but he also showed respect for democratic norms even when they posed a potential threat to victory. He never tried to delay or cancel the 1864 presidential election, even though for much of that year he suspected that he would lose it, in which case his successor might not have pursued the political goals that he regarded as surpassingly important.

Washington and Lincoln both had personal foibles and shortcomings, and held beliefs that the passage of time has discredited. Both continue to be worth honoring nonetheless because their public careers embodied two personal attributes that bolster democratic governance. Each man was honest. The often-told story of the young Washington chopping down a cherry tree and then confessing that he had done so because he could not tell a lie is apocryphal; but he was a man of iron integrity, which gained him the respect of the troops he led and the American people more generally. Lincoln earned the nickname “Honest Abe” during his career as a lawyer, and while he was the subject of often vehement criticism during his presidency, the charge of dishonesty did not feature prominently in it. The importance of honesty in public life, and the gap between the conduct of the country’s current cohort of political leaders and the standard that Washington and Lincoln epitomized, need no elaboration.

In addition, both Presidents were patriots. Their love of country had a particular content. Proud as they were of it, and special as they certainly considered it to be, their sentiments about the United States did not include the ugly features that 20th- and 21st-century nationalism around the world has sometimes exhibited. The two men did not exalt America over, or at the expense of, all other peoples. They grounded their patriotism in allegiance to the country’s founding principles, liberty and self-government, which they devoted their public careers to promoting and protecting.

Upon leaving a session of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Benjamin Franklin was asked what kind of government the delegates had established. “A republic,” he replied, “if you can keep it.” George Washington did more than any other single person to make the American republic, and Abraham Lincoln did more than anyone else to keep it. Because times change, because new issues and controversies arise, and because younger generations take the place of older ones, the task of keeping the republic is ongoing, indeed never-ending. If Americans are to retain what Washington and Lincoln bequeathed to them—and nothing has a higher priority in the public life of the United States—they would do well to remind themselves occasionally, and Presidents’ Day is the logical occasion, of who these men were, what they did, and why both will always remain important.

Michael Mandelbaum is the Christian A. Herter Professor Emeritus of American Foreign Policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a member of the editorial board of American Purpose. His new history of American foreign policy from 1765 to 2015, The Four Ages of American Foreign Policy: Weak Power, Great Power, Superpower, Hyperpower, will be published in June.

Images: General George Washington Resigning His Commission (truncated), by John Trumbull, 1824; painting of Lincoln by George Peter Alexander Healy, 1869

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