In the aftermath of President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial and in light of the scathing attacks on both Trump and potential Democratic candidates as the 2020 election approaches, the celebration of Presidents Day is a good time to rise above the current political recriminations and rancor by reviewing the character and counsel of our two greatest presidents—George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
Although all of our chief executives have had personal flaws and pursued some misguided ideas that harmed the nation, many of them have been men of exemplary character and extraordinary political vision and accomplishment who have, in Lincoln’s words, represented “the better angels of our nature.”
Biblical writers and Greek philosophers argued that the character of rulers is closely associated with the well-being of their subjects. Ancient Israel prospered under kings with godly character and suffered under ones with despicable character. Similarly, the most important qualification of the ruling class in Plato’s “Republic” is character. The Founders insisted that the success of America’s democratic experiment depended on the character of both its leaders and its people. “The destiny of the republican model of government,” Washington proclaimed in his First Inaugural Address, rested on Americans practicing a high level of both public and private morality.
Remembering the sterling character and political principles of Washington and Lincoln is instructive in the midst of our troubled, tumultuous political environment. Washington’s character helped inspire his troops to achieve an improbable victory over Great Britain, persuade delegates to the Constitutional Convention to give the president substantial power, procure the ratification of the Constitution, and enable a fragile republic to survive in the face of British, French, and Spanish competition for the territory west of the original thirteen states.
American literary giant Washington Irving praised Washington’s prudence, sagacity, “immovable justice,” unfaltering courage, unflagging patience, truthfulness, and magnanimity. No one else in history, argued naval official James Paulding, equaled “the virtues he exhibited.” America’s first Catholic bishop, John Carroll, extolled Washington’s “pure and enlightened” morality.
Washington urged Americans to build their new nation on four pillars: a permanent union of the states, lasting peace, public justice, and the proper commitments of its citizens. In underscoring this fourth prop, Washington exhorted his countrymen to “forget their local prejudices and policies,” “to make those mutual concessions which are requisite to the general prosperity,” and to be willing “to sacrifice their individual advantages to the interest of the community.” “I now make it my earnest prayer,” Washington concluded, “that God . . . incline the hearts of citizens” to practice “brotherly affection and love for one another . . . to do Justice, to love mercy,” and to exercise “charity, humility and pacific temper of mind.” A renewed commitment to pursuing the common good is needed to help us overcome our current political divisions and hostility.
Lincoln is also renowned for his exceptional character. Since his assassination, many Americans have extolled the Republican as a near saint. They have assigned him their “most noble traits—honesty . . . tolerance, hard work, a capacity to forgive . . . a clear-sighted vision of right and wrong, a dedication to God and country, and an abiding concern for all.”
Phineas D. Gurley, pastor of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., which Lincoln attended while president, insisted that his “integrity was thorough . . . all-controlling, and incorruptible.” Isaac Mayer Wise, the founder of Reform Judaism, called Lincoln “the highest jewel, the greatest hero, and the noblest son of the nation.” No other president, Robert Michaelsen maintained in “Christian Century,” so fully expressed “in word and deed the Christian virtues of charity and compassion under trying conditions.”
During the most difficult time in American history, Lincoln accentuated God’s sovereignty, held together a coalition of free and border slave states, kept the fragmented Republican Party from falling apart, liberated four million enslaved African Americans, and preserved the Union. His greatest achievement, historian Allen Guelzo argues, is “that he made the idea of the nation—a single people, unified rationally . . . around certain propositions that transcended ethnicity, religious denominationalism, and gender—into the central political image of the republic.”
In the midst of the sectional strife over slavery and states’ rights and even after the outbreak of war, Lincoln expressed his trust in the integrity and wisdom of the American people. In his First Inaugural Address, Lincoln exhorted citizens to have “patient confidence in the ultimate justice of the people” because there was no “better or equal hope” in the world. “Intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him, who has never yet forsaken this favored land,” he insisted, could best resolve the nation’s disagreements. “The Maker of the universe,” he asserted, would “through the instrumentality of this great and intelligent people” bring the United States through its difficulties.
Despite three years of war, Lincoln told a pastor, “I have faith in the people. Let them know the truth, and the country is safe.” At the same time, though, Lincoln insisted that “truth and right were not matters of majority vote.” Only belief that transcendent standards governed human affairs could safeguard the rights of minorities. The principles of republican government, not America itself, Lincoln insisted, had a sacred character.
In his Second Inauguration Address, six weeks before his assassination, Lincoln called for charity, forgiveness, and reconciliation. While many ministers, newspaper editors, civic leaders, and social reformers demanded condemnation of Confederate leaders, Lincoln proposed mercy and clemency. The president advocated “malice toward none” and “charity for all.” Adopting Lincoln’s approach can help our nation overcome political partisanship and animosity by seeking to understand, appreciate, and dialogue with people who hold different political perspectives and priorities.