When I was growing up, May 30 was called Decoration Day; Nov. 11, Armistice Day; and Feb. 12 and Feb. 22 were holidays celebrated separately for Lincoln’s Birthday and Washington’s Birthday.
Now, since Martin Luther King was awarded a holiday in January, the two presidents have merged into one day: Presidents Day.
George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are commonly esteemed to be our two greatest presidents, and they were just about as opposite in backgrounds as two heroes could be.
About the only thing they had in common was their height and their honesty.
The apocryphal (“I cannot tell a lie”) cherry tree tale was inspired by Washington’s reputation for truth. Similarly, Lincoln’s sobriquet was “Honest Abe.” As the store clerk, he once walked six miles to pay back a customer who had overpaid 6 cents.
At age 15, the 6-foot-3 Washington was reckoned to be the tallest man in Virginia. For that reason at that young age he was appointed to succeed his half-brother, Laurence as captain of the local militia. At 6-foot-4, Lincoln was a full 15 inches taller than his petite wife, Mary.
Their backgrounds offered the greatest contrast. The patrician Washington, a distant cousin of Queen Elizabeth II, was a squire growing up in the plantation world of Virginia, while Lincoln was born in a log cabin in Kentucky. When Lincoln ran for president, he was asked to detail his family background. He offered only the line of Thomas Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard”: “The short and simple annals of the poor.”
If both presidents were tall, one was handsome, the other homely. One could hear a collective gasp when the always-uniformed Washington entered a drawing room.
He looked more like a king than any monarch in Europe. Washington’s likeness was crafted in Wedgwood cameos were ordered from England to hang as lockets adorning the necks of stylish ladies.
On the other hand, when a group from Philadelphia in 1864 presented to Lincoln a portrait by Charles Marchant that imparted a measure of nobility to Lincoln’s coarse features, the president told the artist, “In the painting of this beautiful portrait, you took your ideas from my principles not from my person.”
Similarly, the differences in their appearance and attire could not have been more striking. In public, Washington was never seen out of his uniform. His white wig was freshly powdered, and the gold buttons on his buff vest inside his blue tunic glittered.
The black boots beneath his white stockings and tan breeches were mirror bright. In fact, as president, when Washington made state visits to cities like Baltimore, he would have in his carriage a fresh uniform to change into right outside the city.
Contrast that to Lincoln. He was once riding on horseback to circuit court in a new suit when his thoughts were interrupted by a squealing pig. He discovered the pig trapped in a hole.
He found some railroad ties and reached down the hole, positioning them so the trapped pig could maneuver its way out and a dirty, disheveled Lincoln resumed his way.
Lincoln was no graceful dancer. He once said to Mary Todd. “I want to dance with you in the worst way.” Afterwards, she said, “Abe, you sure did.” In contrast, Washington’s grace in the minuet at Mt. Vernon was matched by none. One young lady reported that dancing with General Washington “was like dancing with God.”
Mary Todd’s friends in Springfield could not understand why “the belle of Springfield” chose the awkward Lincoln over another suitor, Stephen Douglas. Her friends were perplexed at her engagement to Lincoln and her rejection of richer gentlemen. “I’d rather marry a good man of mind and bright prospects for fame and power than all the gold stones in the world,” she said.
Like Lincoln, George Washington also “married up.” The eligible bachelor colonel had his choice of the prettiest of the young Virginia belles, but he chose the richest widow in Virginia, Martha Dandridge (Custis). Washington was following a family tradition of the Washingtons of Sulgrave Manor in Northhamptonshire where four of his ancestors married heiresses.
The impeccably attired, well-mannered Washington was the dream of any hostess and the colonel would bask in the company of young, adoring women. But Lincoln, on the other hand, was fearful and awkward in women’s company, preferring the companionship of men where, in around the stove in the local general store or in the tavern that housed lawyers for circuit sessions, he would regale audiences with his stories.
Washington had only a rudimentary education as was necessary in the plantation life such as for surveying: mathematics and geometry.
Lincoln also had only three years of ABC schools, but educated himself by reading Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott, and memorized the poetry of Alexander Pope and Gray.
As president, he would write the only two presidential speeches to become literary masterpieces: “The Gettysburg Address” and “The Second Inaugural.” Yet the only presidential address required by law by Congress to be read aloud every year is Washington’s “Farewell Address” in 1778.
Both Washington and Lincoln would gain their fame in history by winning a war. Washington was a soldier all his life, first in his 20s leading a military expedition in the French-controlled Ohio Valley.
Lincoln’s brief involvement in things military was his captaincy of his local militia in the Black Hawk War. He knew little of drill or tactics. On one occasion his troop, marching in platoon formation, was confronted by a fence. Captain Lincoln had no idea of the proper order, but his quick wit did not desert him. “Company dismissed for two minutes,” he commanded, and then fell in on the other side of the fence.
But if Lincoln had little military experience, he shared that character-quality with Washington: a resolve to persist and outlast the enemy until victory.
As Churchill did with his eloquence, Washington’s character is what kept his soldiers in the field. Unlike other generals who slept in city mansions, Washington stayed at Valley Forge in 1774 and his men, frozen, hungry, and shoeless, didn’t desert him.
When he resigned his command and took his leave from his officers at Fraunces’ Tavern in New York, his officers wept as he shook the hand of each one.
When he was president, pro-French mobs in 1795 approached the Executive Mansion in Philadelphia with clubs protesting his policy of neutrality between France and England. The president was urged to leave, but Washington stood at the window and stared, arms folded, until the protestors skulked away.
Resolve was also part of Lincoln’s make-up. On New Year’s Day, the president hosted a large reception at the Executive Mansion. It was to mark the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. After shaking hands with hundreds of visitors, Lincoln sat down.
When it came time for him to sign the Proclamation, Lincoln delayed. He told an aide, “After all the shaking of hands, my hands seem to be trembling. But I didn’t want to sign with a shaky signature and let the nation think I was hesitant about this Proclamation.”
But if Lincoln, by his resolve, preserved the Union, it was Washington who created it.
There would have been no United States without his generalship of the war and his presiding over the Constitutional Convention and refusing to let the young country be entangled in the European conflict.
Throughout his life Washington was treated as a God. But in his martyred death, Lincoln morphed from a politician to a Jesus Christ figure.
Professor James C. Humes is a former speechwriter and the author of “Wit & Wisdom of Abraham Lincoln,” and “Which President Killed a Man: Fun Facts and Tantalizing Trivia about Our Chief Executives and First Ladies.
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