Sunday, February 15, 2009

Of Presidents, Living and Dead

By Alan Caruba

No, it’s not just an excuse for a three-day weekend, another federal holiday. President’s Day, combining the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, exists to make us think about these two extraordinary men in terms of something more than sales at the mall, auto dealers, and furniture outlets.

The cookie-cutter biographies we are provided with in school barely scratch the surface of what remarkable people these two men were. They have become myths obscured by the many facts that have been collected by historians, but they were perhaps mysteries even to those who were their contemporaries. Both possessed unusual qualities though. They were not so much elevated to leadership as recognized for it.

For their times, both men were taller than most. Lincoln, most certainly, but Washington was an imposing figure as well and both knew it. Washington was an extremely successful farmer-entrepreneur, a wealthy man by any standard. Lincoln was a well-to-do corporate lawyer.

Washington, like those of his generation and especially his contemporaries in the Continental Congress, was concerned for what was then called “virtue”. What we now call honesty, ethical behavior, and similar terms regarding behavior that we all recognize as evoking confidence and respect.

Lincoln was concerned with the moral obscenity of slavery. It was the issue of his times and he felt compelled to end it. Beyond that, I suspect both men were as different as night and day. Lincoln was “every man”, approachable, folksy, and fortunately for succeeding generations of Americans, a canny politician and intellect. The Gettysburg Address is virtually a poem.

President’s Day always seems to involve those awful lists of who was a great President and who was the worst. That reduces the achievements of some or the failures of others to a parlor game. Presidents reflect the times in which they serve as well as their own personal traits. They were not cardboard cut-outs, but flesh and blood men grappling with events.

Washington put his enormous wealth and personal honor on the line to serve for seven long, discouraging years as the general of what can only charitably be called a continental army. It took a Prussian officer and immigrant to whip them into being a real fighting force, but it took the extraordinary courage and determination of Washington to see them through to independence from England, the greatest power of his era.

To understand the presidency of Abraham Lincoln it is essential to know that he became President on March 4, 1861. This is important because by the end of February 1861 seven southern States had already made it clear they intended to secede and had already convened a confederate congress in Richmond, Virginia. Quite literally, Jefferson Davis had taken his oath of office before Lincoln had arrived in Washington, D.C., to take up his duties. He took office with the sole task of preserving the Union. He was reelected during the course of the Civil War. He gave his life in that cause.

This is what each new generation of Americans needs to know, to understand, to absorb into their understanding what it means to live in a republic composed of separate and sovereign republics.

As this is written, millions of Americans are looking to the nation’s capitol and wondering what kind of man they have elected to be the 44th President of the United States and how the current Congress could so insanely burden the nation with enormous debt, piled upon an already existing one, because he deems these times to be "catastrophic."

The current financial crisis would, economists tell us, have eventually resolved itself on its own. If Washington gave us a nation and Lincoln preserved the Union, then Obama has rendered future generations of Americans mere serfs, born with a vast debt the moment they first draw breath.

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