By Richie Beeler
Another Presidents Day came and went last week. It did so with little fanfare. I have often commented that Presidents Day is probably the government holiday when the fewest other people are off. Still, the day marks a very appropriate time of appreciation for the 43 men who have held the highest office in the land. And, no, I am not intentionally leaving anyone out. Grover Cleveland was elected to two non-consecutive terms in the late 19th century. Consequently, even though Barack Obama is officially our 44th chief exec, only 43 different men have held the job.
The question often comes up during this season of the year as to which of our presidents was the greatest. I believe the answer to that question is found in the very time of year when Presidents Day is observed. The third Monday in February always falls between the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. One man is referred to as the father of our country. The other might well be called its savior.
Whatever your politics, and whatever you may think of the men themselves, there can be no denying the larger than life roles both Washington and Lincoln have played in the evolution of the America we live in today. For that reason alone, I must put them at the top of any list that includes our greatest chief executives. They remain to this day my gold standard for presidents.
George Washington did not merely lead the United States through its first years as a nation. He literally forged it through his wartime leadership that was nothing short of miraculous. Washington held the Continental Army together when the Revolution was disintegrating. He reused to give in when Britain’s war machine appeared unbeatable. When independence was finally won, there was scarcely a need for an election. Washington was such a leader that he was chosen unanimously to be America’s first president.
As chief executive Washington was a strong leader who surrounded himself with perhaps the greatest cabinet in presidential history, including Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton and Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson. Although the Revolution had been fought to free the colonies from the tyranny of the British monarchy, Washington had an almost regal demeanor with which he approached the presidency. It is said that he hated “glad handing,” and often held lavish receptions but only with private guests.
But despite this “kingly” approach some accused him of taking, Washington proved an effective leader who more than any of his immediate successors set standards for the presidency that were followed well into the 20th century. Although the Constitution placed no term limits on the president, Washington voluntarily chose not to seek a third term in 1796, thus establishing a precedent that would last more than 130 years.
The nation’s sixteenth president, Abraham Lincoln, rose from virtual obscurity to the top office in the land with his election in 1860. Although George Washington was his hero, in personality Lincoln was almost Washington’s diametric opposite. Folksy and personable, Lincoln used his charm, wit and unflappable demeanor to accomplish some of the greatest presidential power plays in American history.
Critics assert that Lincoln ignored the Constitution, trampled the rights of states, and grossly abused the office of the president. Even his most famous achievement, the Emancipation Proclamation, was an unprecedented stretch of presidential authority. Some, even in Lincoln’s day, declared the measure was blatantly illegal. Lincoln also suspended habeas corpus, arresting and imprisoning many alleged Southern sympathizers throughout the state of Maryland for the security of Washington, DC.
But despite his many critics, it must be remembered that Abraham Lincoln had two goals: the preservation of the Union and the abolition of slavery. Regardless of his questionable methods, he accomplished both in his four year presidency. And the America that has been the superpower of the world for the last century owes its very existence to Abraham Lincoln.
Ironically, perhaps Lincoln’s greatest dream was never realized. The reconstruction of the Union he had fought so tirelessly to preserve would be left in the hands of his successors in the wake of Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865. He did live to see the end of the horrific conflict that so defined his presidency. But he would not see the often bloody and violent fight for peace that followed.
But Lincoln’s legacy lives on today, as does that of his hero, George Washington. Both men brought the iconic, larger than life persona to the presidency which we recognize today, but which was much more rare in their times. More than any of their peers, they shaped the course of the nation they led. And they are the very definition of presidential greatness.