This month Americans celebrate the birthdays of the country's two greatest presidents, George Washington (Feb. 22) and Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12).
Washington, the wealthy plantation owner and Southern gentleman, and Lincoln, the log-cabin-born Midwestern self-made son of the soil, came from starkly differing backgrounds and life experiences, but both literally shaped America into the nation it ultimately became. No other presidents have inspired and molded both the American national character and its form of government more.
George Washington was indeed the "father of his country." He guided the newborn nation successfully through its first great crisis (the Revolution). Overwhelmingly popular as a national hero for having led the Continental Army to victory over Great Britain, the modern world's first super power, Washington spurned offers to become a monarch. He refused to shackle the newly created American presidency with the titles, preferments, and prerogatives of European monarchy.
Most historians believe that Washington's greatest gift to his country was to impose upon himself a voluntary two-term limit on presidential service, relinquishing political power, and returning to private life at Mount Vernon. This extraordinary, virtually unprecedented, voluntary surrender of political power bequeathed a tradition of executive restraint in the federal government that has served the nation well for more than two centuries.
Abraham Lincoln became president in the midst of the nation's second great crisis, the split over slavery that descended into a horribly bloody civil war, American against American, for four terrible and destructive years. The entirety of Lincoln's presidency was filled with preparation for war, war itself and its bitter aftermath, made yet more bitter by Lincoln's assassination, perhaps the worst individual calamity to ever befall the American people.
In the midst of the terrible bloodletting that was America's Civil War, Lincoln struggled for answers to provide greater meaning and purpose, which would justify the agonizing suffering tormenting the nation north and South. Elton Trueblood meaningfully described Lincoln as "the theologian of American anguish." In November, 1863, President Lincoln journeyed to Gettysburg, the site of the greatest battle ever fought on American soil. The land was still scared and littered with the aftermath of the great three-day battle that had been fought there three and a half months earlier.
Lincoln came to dedicate a cemetery for the tens of thousand Union casualties. His speech became an almost instant classic as Lincoln managed to distill into such pithy language the ultimate meaning of the struggle and the unique nature of the American experiment in self-government. The simple, but timeless words of his "Gettysburg Address" grab the heart and mind as if they were spoken yesterday. "Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure."
After honoring the men who perished defending that freedom, Lincoln called on his fellow Americans to "highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that the government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
There has been much speculation by historians about where President Lincoln placed the emphasis in his oral delivery of the speech's last sentence. Most often people who recite the speech today place the emphasis on the prepositions "of," "by," and "for." Is this a sentence about government, or the people of the United States?
Fortunately, we have the benefit of eyewitness Joseph Ignatius Gilbert, who covered the speech as a reporter. Years later Gilbert would recall how he "looked up at him just as he glanced from his manuscript with a faraway look in his eyes as if appealing from the few thousands before him to the invisible audience of countless millions whom his words were to reach." He reported definitively that the President's emphasis was on the "people." So those who heard the speech heard Lincoln's words as "the government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
For Lincoln, as Washington before him, the people were sovereign and the government gained its authority only from the consent of the governed, not top-down from those temporarily in power.
It is important for Americans to remember this priceless national heritage as evidence abounds that Americans face a crisis of confidence in themselves, in their government, and in their future.
Large numbers of Americans have lost faith in their government to tell them the truth about crises both at home and overseas. In the midst of an excruciatingly slow economic recovery (the slowest since the 1930's) more Americans (as a percentage of the population) have left the workforce, claimed disability, or are collecting long-term unemployment than at any time in over a half-century.
Growing numbers of Americans doubt their children will emulate their standard of living, much less exceed it. They see the American dream receding from view. Has vision shifted from the collective gifts of the people of the U.S. to what can be gained from the government?
An even more fundamental question is whether government can still be trusted. A majority of Americans now believe that the Internal Revenue Service has been used as a weapon against some of their fellow citizens and that the Obama administration misled them about the personal consequences of Obamacare. Now, many of them are concerned that the Executive Branch is violating constitutional restrictions against its power.
According to David Brooks, while "fifty percent of Americans over 65 believe America stands above all others as the greatest nation on earth" that belief drops to "only 27 percent of Americans ages 18 to 29." (N.Y. Times, Feb. 11, 2014).
Perhaps it is time for Americans to look to their historical heritage as embodied in Washington and Lincoln and remember that they are the ones who confer power on government by their consent and the government is there to serve them. Elections are coming up in a few months and the people have an opportunity to remind elected officials, who derive their authority from the people, that they can be replaced when they forget for whom they work by representatives who will serve the people and their needs rather than the other way around.