Presidents Day: Honoring Those Who Were Truly Great

Nelson Dawson with his cat, Scout.

Nelson Dawson with his cat, Scout.

Your Voice Contributor

In a time when many people confuse celebrities with heroes, Presidents Day deserves greater stature than merely being an occasion for holiday sales. February is the birth month of our two greatest presidents – George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Yet, while we often fawn over celebrities, we are suspicious of heroes. There are always little people trying to make themselves big people by denigrating great people. But even in a time of corrosive cynicism, it is hard to diminish Washington and Lincoln.

There is, of course, no Institute for Experimental History capable of adding and subtracting people to see how events would then unfold. Yet it seems obvious that the United States would be vastly different from what it is – if it existed at all – without the manifold contributions of these presidential giants; they were indispensable.

Washington, known as “His Excellency” by his awed contemporaries as early as 1776, led the Continental Army through a brutal seven-year struggle to defeat the superpower of the eighteenth century.  He tirelessly lent his unique prestige to the Herculean task of crafting the Constitution. He then eagerly anticipated returning to his beloved Mount Vernon only to reluctantly accept the presidency in 1789, virtually by acclamation. The political atmosphere of the 1790s was poisonous (yes, even worse than today) and through it all Washington was a rock of stability, setting critical precedents for how the new government would actually work before finally retiring in 1797.

Washington was gifted but not a brilliant man, except in the one category, which was crucial to the infant United States: leadership. He was also a profound humanitarian who freed his slaves in his will and consistently urged fair treatment of Native Americans. Neither of these precedents, however, was followed for many long, weary years thereafter.

Abraham Lincoln, the other indispensable leader, was a martyr president but not only because of his assassination; his entire presidency was a path of suffering. Through a hard-scrabble early life, through a profoundly troubled marriage, and through the bitterest time in our history, he lived “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” He was a lifelong opponent of slavery (“if slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong”), but he refused to hate the slaveholders. Indeed, he seemed to embrace the agony of the tragically divided nation, North and South, and sought to understand it as in some mysterious way the outworking of God’s unfathomable will.

This most compassionate of men was convinced that the Union must be preserved, however immeasurably great the suffering. This soft-hearted man was compelled to fight a hard war to achieve this end. And fight he did, with military acumen, political shrewdness and resolute will. Lincoln aged dramatically during his presidency; the last photos reveal a gaunt, careworn man who looked much older than his fifty-six years. A harder man would have suffered less, but a softer man might well have lost the war. But the war was won and the Union saved.

At Lincoln’s deathbed, his secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, memorably observed: “Now he belongs to the ages.” Stanton, of course, was not at Washington’s deathbed in 1799, but his words fit that sad occasion as well. George Washington – the other indispensable man – also belongs to the ages. Stephen Spender in his poem, “I Think Continually of Those Who Were Truly Great,” praised those who “fought for life” and “left the vivid air signed with their honor.” Washington and Lincoln did indeed.

Nelson L. Dawson is a lifelong resident of Louisville. He lives in Crescent Hill with his wife, Susan, and two cats. He also has two sons, Christopher of Columbus, Ohio, and Matthew of Tampa, Fla. He graduated from the University of Louisville, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the University of Kentucky. He is the editor of the Register of the Kentucky Historical Society.