by Gary Alexander
February 17, 2021
Today is the mid-point between Lincoln’s and Washington’s Birthday. When I went to school in the 1950s, we celebrated both Lincoln’s (February 12) and Washington’s (February 22) birthdays by going to school and learning about those two giants – not by staying home on some meaningless Monday in mid-February. But in 1968, Congress decreed a Monday off work and school in the middle of February.
Holiday weekends are meant for extra reflection, so please allow me to ask: What binds those two great Presidents together? In the last six months, I have read two long and authoritative books on each of these giants – each of whom has seen their statues toppled in public squares in Portland, Oregon, a city where my daughters live and our six grandchildren did not learn much good about Lincoln or Washington.
What binds Lincoln and Washington? Both were born in the middle of the country in what could be called “border” states (Kentucky and Virginia) straddling the north and deep south. One was rich and the other poor, but they both learned early on to read books on morals and believed what they read. They each lived by a code of conduct all their lives. In his youth, Washington copied out all 110 maxims of “The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.” Most importantly, Lincoln and Washington were widely exposed to all sides of major arguments throughout their lives – which made them “unifiers.”
Abraham Lincoln – in the Center of a Divided Illinois and a Divided Nation
Let’s take Lincoln first. Though born in Kentucky and reared in Indiana, Abe entered his adult life in the very center of Illinois, a state divided into a “hick” farming south and an industrial and strict moralistic north, which turned out to be a microcosm of the nation. A massive biography (with a micro title), “Abe” by David S. Reynolds, says “Central Illinois, where he settled in 1831, offered a unique mix of settlers from the East and from the South, and offered a model of unity of an increasingly divided nation…”
Reynolds continues: “The state’s northern half was settled largely by people from the northern and eastern United States, many of whom immigrated to Illinois through the Erie Canal and Great Lakes. The Lower section of Illinois, known as Egypt, was settled mainly by people from Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina and other Southern states. The doubleness that Lincoln sensed in his ancestry – Puritan and Cavalier – was reflected by the state’s two cultures” (“Abe,” page 99)
Lincoln’s desire to unite these two feuding regions was reflected in his classic Inaugural speeches:
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break, our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle field and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
– Lincoln’s First Inaugural, March 4, 1861
“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
– Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, March 4, 1865
One of Lincoln’s most remarkable statements in his Second Inaugural was that “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God… The prayers of both could not be answered; and that of neither has been answered fully.” Reynolds writes, “These deceptively simple words contain a world of wisdom.” Religion was a main driver of the Civil War. In these words, Lincoln dared to address the core of that conflict.
After all Lincoln suffered, he still strove for unity, to the end. How much more should we do so today? The current and past President don’t seem to be unifiers, but perhaps we can be unifiers in our own lives.
George Washington – Our Greatest Unifier
Likewise, our first President, George Washington, was a unifier as General and President, above all else. He was constantly frustrated by the factionalism of Thomas Jefferson’s southern gentry vs. Alexander Hamilton’s Yankee federalism. Even though Washington was a Virginian, born and bred, he spent eight years bonding with an army of mostly Yankee soldiers. This Band of Brothers spent those eight cruel winters and bloody summers together, cementing in his mind the virtues of those northerners. As our first President, Washington secretly sided more with his Army aide Hamilton than his countryman Jefferson.
According to biographer Ron Chernow, writing in “George Washington: A Life,” he had no ambitions to be king or supreme ruler, or even a “victorious general.” He was content to win through default, in retreat.
As Benjamin Franklin wryly told an English friend. “An American planter was chosen by us to command our troops and continue during the whole war. This man sent home to you, one after another, five of your best generals, baffled, their heads bare of laurels, disgraced even in the opinion of their employers.”
When told that Washington in victory would simply return to his estate, the thunderstruck King George III said, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”
In July 1799, five months before he died, Washington drew up a new 29-page will, without help of a lawyer, in which he freed all of the slaves under his control upon his wife’s death.
Chernow writes, “By freeing his slaves, Washington accomplished something more glorious than any battlefield victory as general or legislative act as a president. He did what no other founding father dared to do, although all proclaimed a theoretical revulsion at slavery.”
For that, the firebrand anarchists of Portland rewarded the Father of our Country with this public disgrace: