What do we make of Presidents Day in 2017? There was a time when Washington’s birthday and Lincoln’s birthday were object lessons for school children. Today it’s the adults who are reflecting deeply on what the presidency means.
Even though we have a relatively new occupant of the Oval Office – born of an especially divisive campaign – the examples of Washington and Lincoln are essential to understanding what places the American presidency apart from so many other countries.
The men including Washington who crafted our system of government understood and explicitly dealt with concerns that presidents could become too important. It is inevitable the top elected job in a great nation becomes the focus for blame and credit. But in the U.S. system of government, the president is a public employee, not the personification of the nation, as was the case in the European monarchy we left behind. The presidency is important but our nation is infinitely more important.
The historian Garry Wills in his book Cincinnatus points out that Washington was at his greatest when he gave up power. He did that in resigning his military commission before becoming president. Washington did it again when he chose not to run for a third term as president. In retiring, he recognized something that is basic to our nation – that presidential power must be peacefully transferred from one president to the next. Historians have noted that until that occurred – until Washington handed it to John Adams – the promise of the Constitution was not fulfilled.
Former Oregon Sen. Mark Hatfield was also a Lincoln scholar. Hatfield noted that Lincoln’s ultimate quality was pragmatism and mercy.
Wrote Hatfield: “Lincoln did not feel that he chose his place in history, but rather that history had chosen him. Clearly no other individual could have brought so much good out of the seemingly infinite seas of madness and blood with which he was forced to deal.”
Added Hatfield: “The true essence of Abraham Lincoln was his ability to lead without sacrificing compassion.”