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.
- Both were taller than average……………
Well, that’s about it. Actually, these two men were strikingly different and among their many differences were:
- Washington was well educated, Lincoln was not.
- Lincoln had a great sense of humor, Washington did not.
- Washington had a distinguished military background, Lincoln did not.
- Lincoln was an enthusiastic public speaker, Washington was not (in fact, he was awful)
- 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)
- Lincoln was a prolific writer, Washington was not.
- Washington was wealthy, Lincoln was not.
- Lincoln actively sought the Presidency, Washington did not.
- 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.)
- 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:
- 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.)
- Absolute honesty.
- Resolve in his military objectives, even after setbacks.
- Advice to future Presidents to “Avoid foreign entanglements.”
- 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.
Contact the author at email@example.com