Archive for Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Lincoln, Washington defined the role

February 13, 2008

— Next Monday we will celebrate Presidents Day to honor Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, both of whom have February birthdays. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that they are our greatest presidents. Both faced terrible challenges and both left a legacy of freedom for all Americans.

If I had to select the greatest of the two, I would go with Abraham Lincoln.

He didn't even get a chance to get started because the Civil War broke out only weeks into his first term. Lincoln had to raise an army and a navy and prepare to fight a war all across the continental United States. Beyond that, he came to office without much of a mandate. In addition, he was little known and not the best looking of men in that time.

It wasn't long before he began to show his great political skill. In the Pulitzer Prize winning book, "Team of Rivals" Doris Kearns Goodwin points out that Lincoln was a master politician. He brought men to the cabinet who didn't like each other or Lincoln himself. Yet he was able to mold them into a team that accepted his vision of a free and united nation.

Lincoln had wonderful timing, too. In late 1862, England was close to coming into the war on the side of the Confederates which could have been fatal to the Union cause. After a tiny bit of military success, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which was far from perfect, however it forced England's hand. If they chose to fight with the Confederates, they would be supporting slavery. Earlier England freed all slaves and the general public had an abiding hatred of any form of slavery.

I believe his greatest asset was his ability to judge character. Not many would have agreed to turn the future of the nation over to Gen. Ulysses Grant, who had a drinking problem, and Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, who had little success in life and at one time had contemplated suicide. They brought new thinking to the army. They dumped the old Napoleonic strategies and gave the army both direction and motivation. I firmly believe without these two men we would have lost the Civil War and certainly changed history.

Most typical of the change in thinking was when the president asked Gen. Grant if he planned to march on Richmond. For nearly four years, the Union Army had tried to take Richmond with savage frontal attacks and the loss of thousands of lives. Gen. Grant quietly told him that his plan was to destroy Gen. Lee's army and with the Army of Northern Virginia out of the picture, Richmond would surrender.

The president wasn't vindictive; he pardoned the Confederate Army and planned to bring a normal government back to the nation. I have often wondered what would have happened if he hadn't been assassinated.

President Washington had a totally different set of problems, which were equally perplexing. He was trying to turn 13 squabbling colonies into 13 cooperative and united states. Beyond that, he had no road map. At the time we won our freedom, there were no democracies in the world and most European leaders believed the common man was incapable of governing himself. Washington also was great at building a consensus and getting persons of diverse opinion to work toegether. He also had to define the scope of the federal government and his role as chief executive.

He had to maintain an Army in case the British attacked and he faced problems with Indians on the frontier. Then, of course, he had another huge problem taxation. Do you pay taxes to the state or the federal government? Does the state have its own militia or is public safety a joint state and federal issue?

President Washington had to deal with European powers which really didn't trust a government "of the people, by the people and for the people."

He was able to work through most of the problems, largely because of his worldwide fame and popularity. At home, he took quick action to put down the Whiskey Rebellion and set the stage for federal taxation.

His greatest asset, in my opinion was his humility. He was the perfect leader for his time because he didn't want to be king. No, after eight years he left office and guaranteed the smooth transition of government.

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