Reflections on Washington and Lincoln (Article 35)

Most historians agree that these two men were our greatest Presidents based upon their   positive impact on the nation’s development.It may be useful to compare their similarities and their differences.

First, a look at their similarities.

  1. Both were taller than average……………

Well, that’s about it. Actually, these two men were strikingly different and among their many differences were:

  1. Washington was well educated, Lincoln was not.
  2. Lincoln had a great sense of humor, Washington did not.
  3. Washington had a distinguished military background, Lincoln did not.
  4. Lincoln was an enthusiastic public speaker, Washington was not (in fact, he was awful)
  5. Washington believed slavery was “an unfortunate, but necessary condition”, Lincoln did not. (Washington did free some slaves for “long and faithful service” and freed others as a condition of his will upon his death)
  6. Lincoln was a prolific writer, Washington was not.
  7. Washington was wealthy, Lincoln was not.
  8. Lincoln actively sought the Presidency, Washington did not.
  9. Washington enjoyed broad national support (North and South), Lincoln did not. (In fact, Washington is the only President to ever receive 100% of the Electoral votes.)
  10. Lincoln enjoyed the give and take of politics, Washington did not (He even hoped to ban political parties).

But, they did share an important personal attribute; they were both honorable men and honest to their core.

And, they shared one driving vision for their country; that the various states must be united by a strong Constitution under which the states would yield authority to the Federal government.

Washington said that the original “Articles of Confederation” was a document which was only a “rope of sand” and that the new nation would fail without the ratification of the proposed Constitution. He believed that failure to find a common Constitution would result in regional conflict and invite foreign opportunism.

Seventy five years later, Lincoln agreed saying; “The Country cannot stand divided. It would be the worst of Europe, with state against state and fertile ground for foreign intervention.”

The new Constitution, which replaced the Articles of Confederation as the country’s guiding principle, established a strong central government and the office of President as the chief executive. But, while the framers of the Constitution CREATED the office of President, George Washington DEFINED it, and Abraham Lincoln PRESERVED it.

Lincoln revered George Washington. And Lincoln, when facing a critical decision, would often stand before one of the several paintings of Washington which adorned the White House walls. His favorite was the Gilbert Stuart painting of a standing Washington, dressed in civilian clothes, which was the one rescued by Dolly Madison just before the British burned the White House in 1814.

As a young man, Lincoln had read the book, “The life of Washington,” several times; and read other biographies of the first President whenever he had the chance.

In 1848, as a young congressman, Lincoln even evoked Washington to admonish then President James Polk. Lincoln believed Polk had lied to the American People and to Congress about the cause for invading Mexico in 1846 when Polk charged that, “Mexico had spilt American blood on American soil.”

Lincoln rose on the on the house floor and said: “Let President Polk answer my interrogatories. Let him answer with facts. Let him remember that he sits where Washington sat and let him answer as Washington would answer, with no evasion and no equivocation.”

So, what else did Lincoln Learn from his study of George Washington? What examples did Washington establish that guided Lincoln as President?

Lincoln said that he admired Washington’s:

  1. Protocol that the Presidency was to be “approachable” and his refusal to be addressed as “Your Excellency”. (Under Washington, the term “Mr. President” became common.)
  2. Absolute honesty.
  3. Resolve in his military objectives, even after setbacks.
  4. Advice to future Presidents to “Avoid foreign entanglements.”
  5. Decision to only serve two terms. (Although Washington would have easily been elected to a third term if he wished.)

While Lincoln would not get the chance to even complete his second term, he had already announced that he would return to Springfield when the term was over. At the time, while there was no legal limitation against a third Presidential term, Lincoln wanted to follow Washington’s example.

As noted earlier, one of the significant differences between these great men was their sense of humor.

Lincoln took real joy in humor of all types, whether he was telling the story or listening to others. Lincoln would slap his knees, laugh out loud, and laugh long; even if he were telling the story or hearing one he had heard before. On the other hand, while George Washington appreciated humorous anecdotes, his response was always measured, and a slight smile might be all that the story teller saw.

Of course, Lincoln liked to tell “yarns”, craftily woven tall tales for which he might have several variations. He also used humorous stories to make a point more clear. But Lincoln was also a quick wit when a circumstance was presented.

Once Lincoln was with a bunch of Lawyers gathered around a fireplace on a very cold night. “Colder than Hell”, said Lincoln. One of the others, expecting some humorous answer from “Abe” said, “Lincoln, have you been to hell?” Lincoln laughed and said, “Sure have, it’s a lot like here…. all the lawyers are closest to the fire.”

And another time, when General McClellan said he was not ready to advance his troops yet, Lincoln wrote, “General, if you are not going to use your Army, may I borrow it for a while.”

Once, Lincoln and Steven A. Douglas, who had opposed each other over many years in legal cases and in political races, were staying at the same boarding house. Over supper Lincoln showed the group a pocket watch and said, “I just bought this fine watch for $50 dollars”. Douglas then pulled out an even finer watch, smiled and said, “Well, Lincoln, I just bought this beautiful watch for $100 dollars.” They all laughed, Including Abe, at Douglas’s “one-upmanship.

Then, in an interesting coincidence, the next morning Lincoln discovered that his watch had been stolen from his room during the night; and he placed this ad in the local paper. “To the thief who stole my watch worth $50 dollars. If you will return it to me, I will tell you where you can steal one worth twice as much. A. Lincoln.”

On the other hand, there is little record of George Washington leading a humorous exchange and none of him actually telling a joke. But, he may have occasionally tried. The following two anecdotes about Washington’s humor cannot be verified but were mentioned by others who were recalling the great General’s life.

During the Revolutionary War a militia sentry had fallen asleep on guard duty, a transgression punishable by execution. Washington called several of his senior officers together to decide the man’s fate. Washington began by saying the British Army did not have this problem. An officer asked, “General, do not British soldiers ever fall asleep on guard duty?” To which Washington replied, “They did, but the soldiers were so well disciplined that when he awoke, the soldier would execute himself.” The writer said that Washington seemed to enjoy the remark but the other officers were uncomfortable at the comment during such a solemn discussion. By the way, as the story was told, the soldier’s life was spared.

George Washington was a big man, and had an unusually large posterior. Of course, people noticed, but no one dared mention it. Once, when the army was preparing to cross the Delaware River, Washington was assigned a seat in one of the small row boats. The Colonel in charge of assigning space made the humorous comment to another officer that if Washington would stand, two men could sit in his place. But, he did not know that General Washington was standing right behind him! He next heard Washington say, “That may be Colonel, but perhaps you could swim so I could sit, and we would still have room for the extra man.” The Colonel must have been mortified.

Humor aside, and despite their other differences, the United States of America was fortunate to have had these two men available, and willing to serve, at critical times in our nation’s history.

Washington became the first President; he had no instruction manual and, through his example, established precedents for the office that have stood for over 200 years. Lincoln took his oath as the sixteenth President as a sacred duty to preserve the Constitution, the Union, and the office both he and Washington held.

We should remember both of them, and be grateful for their service.

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Presidents’ Day? (Article 34)

What is Presidents’ Day? Is it a time to reflect on the contributions of only one President (if so it would be President’s Day)? Or, perhaps it is to honor two or more Presidents, or even all the men elected to the nation’s highest office. Or is it just another federal Monday holiday that provides most of us with a three day weekend? For many Americans, the answer is likely to be “a Monday holiday.”

But, that was not always the case.

George Washington’s birth date, February 22, had been recognized as a special day in many places from the early 1800s. The practice became wide-spread in communities and states throughout the United States upon the centennial of his birth in 1832; and continued unabated for nearly 150 years. In 1885, it became a federal holiday, primarily offering a day off to government workers, but the rest of the country embraced the new law and even more “Washington’s Day” celebrations were held, which often resembled Fourth of July patriotic events. And, Washington had the day to himself.

In many states, but certainly not all, Abraham Lincoln’s birth date of February 12 was also celebrated. Soon after Lincoln’s death in 1865, Illinois declared April 15th as a “Memorial Day” but the practice was replaced a few years later by recognizing his birthday and over the next few years, other states followed. Even if workers did not get a paid holiday, schools recognized the great American with special programs and lesson plans dedicated to Lincoln’s life story. For the next 100 years, Lincoln had February 12 all to himself.

So our first and sixteenth Presidents, who most historians recognize as the two leaders who had the most impact on our developing nation, had their own special day.

Until 1971!

In 1970 Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, with the support of the nation’s largest labor unions and major business interests, to create a pattern of three day weekends. In the initial bill, sponsors considered designating the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th Monday in February as “Washington’s Day”, but eventually decided on the third Monday (which always falls between the 15th and 21st) to approximate the real date of Washington’s birth, which was the 22nd. Almost immediately a group of congressmen proposed that the “special day” be renamed as Washington-Lincoln Day, which gained substantial support. Unsurprisingly, the Illinois delegation worked hard for this change, but could never get enough votes for the amendment to pass. One reason for the failure was that the majority of each delegation from most Southern states, as well as several northern congressmen, voted against including Abraham Lincoln’s name in the holiday designation. George Washington was highly regarded as a national hero throughout the country, however, that was not so for Abraham Lincoln. In 1970 the sentiments still ran deep in the old South against Lincoln and the Civil War, and the vote for the new February Monday holiday was proof. Because Lincoln’s name did not even appear on the Presidential Electoral ballot in nine southern states in 1860 or in thirteen states in 1864, many Southerners did not consider him to have been “their” President. Therefore, in 1970, most of the congressmen from that region voted to not include Lincoln in the special day. It is interesting to note that a certain segment of the southern population still harbors those resentments today.

So, if the new holiday would not be referred to as Washington-Lincoln Day, what would it be called? Since the original bill was not amended, the official Congressional records still referred to “Washington’s Birthday” and President Nixon signed the bill designating it as such.

So officially, we should all refer to Washington’s Day, at least according to Congress.

But, other “popular forces” had not spoken!

Soon, these ‘popular forces” around the United States began a movement; which, in this case, the term “popular forces” refers to retail store owners and their shoppers! Merchants began to advertise “President’s Day Sales” knowing that their shoppers now had an extra day to visit the stores; and economists and politicians, noticed that retail sales began to boom in what had historically been a slow month. Soon individual states began to issue proclamations calling it President’s Day and even designated other Presidents, including frequently Abraham Lincoln, in the honor. Illinois, for example, resolved that it would be called Washington-Lincoln Day, but the phrase never really caught on with the public; even in the state where Lincoln began his political career and which is generally considered Lincoln’s home state.

But, the official United States Congressional calendar still refers to the third Monday in February as Washington’s Birthday.

Since he was a modest man when it came to personal recognition, I don’t think Abraham Lincoln would have spent one minute promoting the idea of a holiday in his honor. However, he revered the first President and the Lincoln family always participated in celebrations on the birth-date of George Washington.

So, while we all add to the February retail sales numbers and the national GDP over this long weekend, perhaps we can take a bit of time as a teaching moment. Let us be reminded that both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln gave so much of themselves to this country that they each deserve our recognition and appreciation. Even if for just one day.

And, then mention that to a few people, especially youngsters.

It is really important.

Finally, contrary to what some dissatisfied Americans claim, the future MLK holiday, which would eventually be set for a Monday in January, had nothing to do with the 1971 Federal Holiday law which resulted in the disappearance of special days for Washington and Lincoln. In fact, President Reagan signed the MLK holiday bill in 1983 as a stand-alone law, and it was not technically even part of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. So, no one should blame the organizers of the MLK Day for the missing Washington’s Day or Lincoln’s Day. It just seems that the term Presidents’ Day, over time, simply became the preferable term for the holiday on the third Monday in February.

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More than a Museum! (Article 33)

Most of us have toured museums. We have stood before famous paintings or valuable artifacts, with our arms crossed over our chests or perhaps behind our backs; and admired the exhibits. We likely whispered to our companions as we strolled past numerous interesting displays and then picked up the pace when an area was not so captivating.

However, as a sign at the Metropolitan Museum of Art declares, “There are museums and then there are Museums!” The individuals, whose reflections follow, had all recently visited the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois. As we compared our experiences we realized that each of us had seen something personal; however, we had been affected by different sections.

But, we all agreed; this is a Museum!

One person noted that he was touched by the changes in President Lincoln as the war took its toll, another recalled the lilting music that accompanied each display, and one could not forget the display of a slave auction. One lady said that the exhibits of the Lincoln funeral processions brought back childhood memories of a much later assassination. Another woman said she was moved by the Mary Todd Lincoln gallery, and a veteran was struck by the display of letters from young men in the Civil War to their families. A mother was surprised that, for the first time, she and her young son wanted to linger in the same places. And one Southerner said that it changed his perception of Lincoln.

All spoke of a sense of reverence and awe.

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum is comprised of two adjacent but distinctly different buildings. While the extensive Library is of most interest to historians, researchers, and authors, the Museum is for everyone. The Library is a gift to academia; but the Museum is a gift to all of the people.

The Museum is unique in that it does not just honor the life and accomplishments of one man, as is common with other Presidential Libraries. Nor does it offer only one side of a horrific Civil War. Instead, it showcases an entire era and the people who lived through the most turbulent time in our country’s history; northerner and southerner, slave-owner and slave, merchant and farmer, and the soldiers who wore Union blue and Confederate gray.

Lincoln’s boyhood, early career, and Presidential years are depicted in a series of life sized dioramas that are in amazing detail; however, the museum is not just about Lincoln. It brings the viewer in touch with literally hundreds of people as the exhibits illustrate the first 65 years of the 19th Century. The causes and effects of the Civil War are demonstrated, not just through an academic history recitation, but through the recollections of the individuals who lived in those times. Every display is accompanied by period music, paintings, photographs, newspaper headlines, and commentary by soldiers, farmers, merchants, and slaves. While some commentary is by the societal and political elites of the day, most are the reflections of common men and women who were often trying to describe the indescribable.

It is almost impossible for any visitor to come away from the Museum without a greater appreciation for these people; especially for those who fought on both sides of the Civil War (or War of Northern Aggression, as some Southerners still prefer).

The Museum strikes a balance between the motivations of Lincoln and those of the Southern leaders, and also between the Union and Confederate causes.

Lincoln is accurately depicted, from his innate intelligence, his wit, and especially his dedication to his primary cause as President, the preservation of the Union. However, the museum gives an honest assessment of this complex man, with his self-doubts and flaws and is not simply a crowning of “Saint Abraham.”

Most visitors recalled a personal connection they felt as they toured the various displays and many found themselves drawn and re-drawn to a certain area.

One said that he found himself looking at four photographs of Abraham Lincoln which were arranged on a wall in progression by date; 1861, 1863, 1864 and 1865. The toll on the President was striking and the visitor began to think of how Lincoln was worn down by the enormity of the ongoing Civil War. He said he kept returning to those four photographs and he had to wipe away tears; which, by the way, he hoped no one had noticed.

Another said she began to listen to the exquisite companionship provided by the music which surrounded several hundred images of young soldiers, some smiling, some terribly wounded, and some dead; and she said the effect was just “so sad but somehow beautiful.” She purchased the CD of the music and said that when she listens now, the same emotions re-occur.

A man told of not being able to leave the life sized (and very life-like) diorama of a Negro family being torn apart at a slave auction; the anguish on the father’s face as he is pulled away, the abject horror on the face of his wife, and the ten year old boy, crying, reaching out to his father, without yet realizing his totality of his loss. The visitor returned several times, each time noticing more details in the heartbreaking scene, and the enormity of the tragedy sank in. The display captured the pain of nearly four million men, women and children who, at the start of the Civil War were still only “property”; to be bought and sold by another human being.

Then there were the images of the Lincoln funeral train and its long slow route through the Northern states to his home in Springfield; which one visitor compared to the public outpouring after President Kennedy’s assassination and remembered how she felt. Now, for the first time, she understood the sadness of so many at the death of Abraham Lincoln. To her, it became a personal experience, not just a history lesson.

One lady wrote that at first she could not wait to see the collection of exquisite formal gowns displayed on mannequins of Mary Todd Lincoln. The visitor was aware of Mrs. Lincoln’s fascination with intricate beading and the inclusion of several colors, a hallmark of Elizabeth Keckley, her favorite seamstress who was a former slave. Then, after admiring the handiwork, she began to read the accompanying text and for the first time realized the awful sadness that surrounded Mary; the gowns could give the allusion of gaiety, but they masked the truth. One gown in particular was worn by Mrs. Lincoln to a White House Gala, while her nine year old son, Willie, was sick upstairs in his bed. Willie died a few days later and Mary never forgave herself. Further, her only friend in Washington was Mrs. Keckley, who nursed her through a long grieving period. The visitor noted that she had only come to the exhibit to see Mary’s clothing, but was grateful that she was now able to better understand the woman to whom history has not been kind.

Another visitor, a veteran of the Vietnam War, stood for a long time before the display of letters from young soldiers (both Union and Confederate) and noted the similarities between those letters and the ones he had written to his family and the letters his own father had sent home during the Second World War. He wrote, “These bring back my own memories. It seems war is always the same for the soldier.”

A young mother, who had made it a point over the years to take her children to major museums and exhibits, on this day, took her ten year old son to the Lincoln Museum. She recalled that both she and her son found themselves struck by the same exhibits. She said it was the first time that they shared a common reaction as most museum excursions became a tug of war, with each wanting to spend time at different areas. Then she added, “But, not here, not at this place.”

Finally, there was an elderly gentleman from South Carolina who had reluctantly visited with his middle aged son. He had spent a lifetime believing, and instilling in his children, that Lincoln had deliberately destroyed southern culture. He now said “I don’t know if I had an epiphany or I have just mellowed, but I found myself changing my opinion. The Slave auction display and letters touched something within me. I just didn’t get it before. I apologized to my son.”

The many scenes affected these visitors in different ways, but each also recalled sections that were uplifting and others that were educational. And of course, some that were humorous; after all it features “Abe” who was a great storyteller.

All of us agreed that we would visit again. I know I will.

And, I sincerely hope you do too.

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