Two of our greatest American presidents were born in February. During my rural Illinois childhood, we celebrated Abraham Lincoln and George Washington by making silhouettes of the two leaders. Today I sat for a few moments and tried to remember exactly how this annual art project progressed. To be honest, I’m not sure. I do recall, however, that the creative process frequently preceded an all-school assembly in the gymnasium dedicated to extolling the two men.
My school was named for Abraham Lincoln, so perhaps we devoted special attention to his story. In fifth grade, when our teacher decided we would re-enact the Lincoln–Douglas Debates, I played the role of the shorter of the two candidates (Stephen A. Douglas). As you likely know, Douglas actually prevailed in the balloting for senator, but it was Lincoln who ascended to the presidency several years later. The story goes that the gangly new chief executive approached the podium with stovepipe in hand — only to have Douglas spring forward to hold the hat.
Like many stories about Lincoln, we aren’t quite sure this is true. For that matter, we don’t know if Washington ever chopped down a cherry tree either. It is easy to confuse these two historic figures for construction-paper caricatures. And yet I believe that both have something to teach us today. They governed in complicated times and were devoted especially to the concept of union. We know this about Lincoln certainly, for his election prompted the secession of the southern states that precipitated the Civil War.
In 1796, George Washington also was concerned about the durability of the republic. He saw within his own Cabinet growing division. And so, before retiring to Mount Vernon, he delivered the Farewell Address that remains strangely prescient. Washington warned against geographic sectionalism, the growth of political factions and interference by foreign powers in the domestic life of the nation. Each year a member of the United States Senate reads the address aloud as the Upper House commemorates Washington’s birthday.
Who will listen?
Rebecca L. Sherrick, PhD