MARTI CROW: Lessons to be learned
I took lots of history courses in college and later at St. Mary University here in Leavenworth because I love history. I taught American history to middle school students. Now we live in very interesting historical times – a pandemic that harkens back to 1919, lots of political unrest and political friction, forever wars, and economic and social upheaval. There’s so many dramatic events that even hibernation during a quarantine doesn’t feel boring.
It is a common practice in our culture to use past events and notable persons to designate national holidays. This month both President Lincoln and President Washington have birthdays, so we celebrate President’s Day. I do not argue with commemorating two of our greatest leaders and I hope that during the period between Lincoln’s birthday on Feb. 12 and Washington’s birthday on Feb. 22, school children and all students of history of every age, study the lessons to be learned from these two presidents.
So much can be learned from remembering the first great warrior/leader who, though popular enough to be elected again and again, set the precedent of leaving the office after two terms, the first peaceful transfer of executive power.
Our students and citizens nationwide need to also be reminded of the only American president who led during a bloody civil war that threatened the unity and vitality of our country. Leadership matters.
As a baby country and as a divided country, we were so fortunate to have leaders who put the people, the laws and the constitutional promises and protections first, before personal power or benefit.
In President Washington’s farewell address, he wrote a letter to “Friends and Citizens,” making clear that he did not consider himself a step above the people he led, but rather a man of the people, a citizen among citizens. He warned that the stability of our infant nation was threatened by forces of geographical and political division.
Washington’s words could be interpreted as warning that, once elected, the president and representatives of the people, legislative and judicial, should set aside partisan divisions and govern for the good of all.
President Lincoln, on the other hand, was president No. 16 and took office 64 years after Washington left. Our democratic experiment was yet young, and the union itself was at risk not from without, but from within. Sadly, Lincoln did not survive to give a farewell address; he was assassinated 42 days into his second term.
In his second inaugural address, Lincoln spoke about mutual forgiveness and stressed that the strength of our country would come from its charity toward those suffering during a savage civil war. He asked for charity and forgiveness even though, when he spoke, the Civil War was not yet over. He said, “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 urged reconciliation and healing. Lincoln’s fate just a few weeks later shows how dangerous leadership in a crisis can be. Although these two men we celebrate, like many of our greatest presidents, were ordinary men in extraordinary times, they each rose to the task of leading a constitutional democracy in trying times.
Washington was a wealthy land owner, an owner of slaves and a military veteran. Lincoln embodied our idea of the American dream, born into poverty. Self educated frontiersman and country lawyer, he was definitely not part of the elite or monied class.
Our greatest presidents governed in crisis times. Sometimes leaders do not rise to the task of the presidency and disaster results. There’s James Buchanan, whose inept leadership preceded the Civil War, and Warren G. Harding, who was wildly popular and whose administration had numerous scandals, personal and governmental. Historians say Harding’s leadership was flawed due to his lack of depth and decisiveness, and his actions and omissions contributed to the coming Great Depression.
Future generations are the caretakers of the past. Our country has a proud history and we have been led by many selfless and heroic presidents, and by some not up to the task. Democracy is messy and not always smooth. We who will never be president have the task to select our leaders. Let’s pay attention and select carefully. Our past presidents were each ordinary people. The task to build and maintain the strength of a democratic republic that belongs primarily to the people is up to the governed, not the leaders.
Marti Crow is a Leavenworth Times columnist.