George Washington vs. Abraham Lincoln: Pairing Presidents XVIII

George Wshington vs. Abraham Lincoln:
Pairing Presidents XVIII

Need a break from the horrible? George Washington (1789-97) and Abraham Lincoln (1861-65) deserve to adorn Mount Rushmore.

How they are similar:

It's no stretch to say that Washington presided over the birth of the nation and Lincoln was there at its rebirth. This presents certain analytical problems. More has been written about these two than any other president, but Washington and Lincoln are so revered that they often emerge as more mythical and symbolic than real. When sociologist Robert Bellah coined the phrase civic religion, he noted that Washington and Lincoln were treated as if they were semi-divine.

Washington helped define the American republic. It was he who insisted upon the title "President of the United States," rather than emperor or king. He also rejected being addressed as "Your Excellency" in favor of the more common "Mr. President." This was more than wordplay. When Washington took office in 1789, the Constitution had been ratified, but the Bill of Rights was still two years from adoption. Moreover, both were theoretical documents at the time. How would a president's Cabinet function? There was no functioning judicial system nor was there an Attorney General until the Judiciary Act of 1789, no way for the nation to conduct business as an entity until the Bank Act of 1791, no certainty that the government would be able to collect taxes until Washington personally led troops that quashed the 1791 Whiskey Rebellion, and no circulating money supply until the Coinage Act of 1792. The U.S. Constitution is an inspiring document, but if you actually read it, it's also maddeningly vague in places. In practice, the entire machinery of federal government and bureaucracy was improvised under Washington and even then, the Supreme Court wouldn't have the power of judicial review until the Jefferson administration. Washington did, however, appoint every member of the first SCOTUS.

Lincoln's task was to assure that the foundations laid by Washington and evolved in the intervening sixty-five years remained in place rather than perishing via secession. Remember: seven states quit the Union before Lincoln even took office. It is hard to imagine the Union could have been preserved had Lincoln been as inept as Franklin Pierce or James Buchanan. It fell to Lincoln to address the intractable problem of race sidestepped by all of his predecessors, Washington included. The first eleven amendments to the Constitution came to life under Washington, but just one more before Lincoln. His role in securing the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery during a lame duck session of Congress was a skillful political act that redefined American freedom.

Few presidents have understood the military as well as Washington or Lincoln. Washington was, of course, a general long before he became commander in chief. In the latter role, he exercised the wisdom to avoid conflict when he felt it would endanger the new nation. Though it was unpopular, he refused to involve the United States in aspects of the French Revolution that might lead to more conflict with Britain, and authorized the unpopular Jay Treaty, which compensated some British financial losses during the American Revolution rather than risk war. The 1796 Treaty of Tripoli attempted to resolve piracy issues via diplomatic means. This was a short-term fix that bought the new nation breathing space and established the United States as willing to negotiate. The latter paid dividends in a treaty with Spain (Pickney's Treaty) that proved useful in the future (such as the 1821 purchase of Florida).

Has any other president been as masterful as commander in chief role as Lincoln? The North entered the Civil War with many advantages, but brilliant generalship wasn't among them. When it became clear that a hands-off approach would not work, Lincoln took charge of the military. Perhaps his greatest hour was the demotion of the egotistical and battle-averse George McClellan in 1862. Lincoln dismissed quite a few others until he found a general he trusted (Ulysses S. Grant). After ridding himself of the conniving McClellan, generals understood who was in charge!  

Each figure was viewed as incorruptible. Both played politics when needed, but even enemies believed each man placed the nation above self-interest. The story–invented by Mason Weems–of Washington's admission of chopping down his father's cherry tree is more than a trite folk tale; it's an allegory on Washington's character as seen by his peers. Lincoln carried the "Honest Abe" handle. Many individuals disrespected Lincoln and made impassioned speeches cataloguing his sins, but only wild-eyed conspirators actually believed Lincoln could be bought. In fact, many of his critics were angry because they couldn't corrupt him. 

Both surrounded themselves with brilliant advisors; neither appointed enablers or "yes" men. Washington's inner circle included Vice President John Adams, but his secretary of state was Adams' rival, Thomas Jefferson. Another Jefferson rival was Washington's enormously influential Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, who put the U.S. on firm financial footing at home and abroad. He was the mastermind of the First Bank of the United States, the U.S. Mint, and the decision to fund the Revolutionary War debt at par rather devaluing wartime promissory notes. This was denounced as a money grab by speculators who held those notes, but Hamilton believed that securing the nation's credit reputation outweighed other concerns. Hamilton also launched internal improvement schemes to build the national infrastructure (roads, canals, buildings). An underling ( Tench Coxe) developed plans for manufacturing–much to Jefferson's chagrin. It is but mild exaggeration to say that the early blueprint for the United States was as much Hamilton's as Washington's.

Lincoln assembled what historian Doris Kearns Goodwin dubbed a "team of rivals," from Cabinet members who thought they, not Lincoln, should be POTUS. No leader since Louis XIV of France was a skilled as Lincoln at keeping his enemies within sight and playing them off against each other. Secretary of State William Seward initially thought himself Lincoln's superior, but he soon became one of Lincoln's greatest admirers. Just to make sure, though, Lincoln's Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase hated Seward. Lincoln made Simon Cameron his Secretary of War, though everyone thought Cameron was corrupt. He was too powerful to ignore, so Lincoln put him in a place where he could watch him. And so it went. And it worked brilliantly–which brings a smile to my conflict theorist's heart.

Lincoln took several of Washington's plans to the proverbial next level. One generally thinks of Lincoln as a wartime president, but he also governed what was left of the United States. His 1863 National Banking Act was the first serious attempt at creating a single national currency. (That didn't happen entirely until Woodrow Wilson was POTUS.) The Union also issued greenbacks and made them sound–something the Confederacy never achieved. How about the 1862 Morrill Land Grant Act that (eventually) set up state colleges and universities, the 1862 Homestead Act that opened the Plains for settlement and converted it from what was called the "Great American Desert" to "America's Breadbasket," the creation of the Department of Agriculture, and passing the enabling legislation that led to the building of the first transcontinental railroad, and preserving lands that later became Yosemite National Park?

Neither Washington nor Lincoln showed great sympathy for Native Americans. Washington authorized Indian wars in the Northwest Territory (most of today's Midwest). Indian wars occurred simultaneously with the Civil War under Lincoln, who was uncharacteristically non-merciful during the uprising of the Santee Sioux. Lincoln signed over 300 death warrants and, in 1862, 38 Sioux were hanged in Minnesota–the largest one-day execution in U.S. history.

Both men acted, either forcefully or tyrannically depending upon one's perspective, ­if they felt it was in the nation's best interest. Jefferson called Washington's brutal suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion "like taking a meat axe to kill a spider." Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the war, especially in Maryland, where numerous Confederacy-sympathetic officials were jailed to make sure Maryland did not leave the union.

How they were different:

Washington was not very religious; he was a deist who disbelieved in a personal god. Lincoln was far more pious, invoked Christianity frequently, and was sincere in doing so. Not coincidentally, Lincoln was the first to make Thanksgiving a national holiday.

Even Washington's greatest admirers described him as cold, aloof, and humorless. Lincoln was warm, self-deprecating, and approachable. He is probably the funniest or all presidents, wielding what might be (anachronistically) considered a Twain-like humor. Lincoln's traits served him well, as few politicians have been as denigrated and slandered as he. Lincoln also endured personal tragedies that mirrored those of the nation. His 11-year-old son Willie died of typhoid in 1862, and his wife, Mary, was thought to be mentally unbalanced. Washington is called the "father of his country," but he wasn't much of a family man. He provided support for Martha's children by her first marriage, but never fathered children of his own (and was probably impotent). Intimacy was simply not a Washington trait. 

Lincoln was a fine orator and his Gettysburg Address is now scrutinized as a model of rhetorical brevity and clarity. Washington disliked public appearances and was stiff at the podium.

A big difference: Washington owned slaves–around 500 at the time of his death–and Lincoln emancipated slaves. Washington signed into law the first Fugitive Slave Act (1793), though he was also the first POTUS to curtail importation with the Slave Trade Act (1794). Lincoln was far more admirable on all racial fronts. As late as 1858 he held fast to ideals of white supremacy, but he underwent a genuine change of heart courtesy of a friendship he forged with Frederick Douglass. His assassination clouds discussion of what he would have done had he been in charge of Reconstruction, but evidence suggests he would have pushed for the greater social freedoms his successor, Andrew Johnson, rejected. The Freedmen's Bureau was a Lincoln ideal and, Southern revisionist efforts notwithstanding, a Reconstruction program whose only major flaw was not being more expansive.   

In foreign affairs, Washington counseled the nation should avoid "entangling foreign alliances." As we have seen, his administration was more defensive than proactive. Lincoln was easily the superior diplomat. Consider the misunderstood Emancipation Proclamation. It did not "free the slaves," as glibly reported. Had the South surrendered before January 1, 1863, it would have freed none at all! It applied only to areas "still under rebellion," which meant it was unenforceable. Lincoln knew that the Confederacy hoped to leverage Britain's desire for Southern cotton into support for its rebellion. The Emancipation Proclamation converted the Civil War from one about preserving the Union to one about slavery. Lincoln knew that it would be difficult for any British prime minister to support a war abroad whose intent was to expand slavery, which Britain had banned. Lincoln also knew it would take a Constitutional amendment to end slavery, which is why the 13th Amendment was passed before the Civil War ended.

In his 1797 Farewell Address, Washington counseled the nation to avoid foreign entanglements, the development of political parties, and regional disputes. Washington wasn't being prescient about what could happen–these things were already occurring. By Lincoln's time, it was na├»ve to imagine such things could be ignored. After all, Lincoln was the first president of the new Republican Party, faced a secession crisis, and the above-mentioned possibility of foreign intervention into the Confederacy's rebellion.

Washington was calculating, whereas Lincoln was occasionally overly optimistic. His second inaugural address expressed hope for peace based upon the principle of "malice toward none, with charity for all." These were noble, but foolish words. The Civil War was too bloody for a forgive-and-forget solution–as Johnson discovered. Lincoln grossly underestimated the moral culpability of the Confederacy in precipitating and prolonging the conflict. Lincoln probably should have pushed for tribunals akin to today's "truth and reconciliation" panels. Put another way, if he could hang 38 Sioux warriors, there were at least that many Confederate leaders and generals worthy of that fate. Imagine the future had Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Nathan Bedford Forrest, and others been hanged as traitors instead of becoming revered members of the Lost Cause myth.


Most nations would be happy to boast such outstanding leaders. Lincoln currently ranks at the very top of the heap and Washington is # 4. I'd rank Franklin Roosevelt as # 1 simply because he had to deal with the worst depression in American history and then lead the nation into World War II against an evil (fascism) more vile than Confederate slaveholders. (Fascism, after all, would have occasioned global slavery.) But is Lincoln vs. FDR worth a rhetorical catfight? Call 'em 1A and 1B.

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