Two men, born over 70 years apart, arguably did more to shape the destiny of America than any others. While they came from very different backgrounds and different parts of the country, they shared a belief in the destiny of the United States to become the freest nation the world had ever seen.
With their presidencies, they saw America through its birth as an independent country, and its emergence as a country where equal rights were awarded to all citizens.
George Washington: Father and Founder of the United States
Nothing in George Washington’s early career suggested that he would become a “father of the nation.” He was certainly physically gifted, with a tall, imposing stature and excellent riding abilities that were honed during his time as a land surveyor and soldier in the French and Indian War (1753-1758). He was a stalwart soldier, whose tough mother had instilled in him the value of hard work.
But Washington was neither an intellectual nor a gifted conversationalist, two things we often associate with political figures. He was primarily a man of deeds and bravery rather than one of words. As his fellow founder Thomas Jefferson put it, Washington “possessed neither copiousness of ideas, nor fluency of words,” when talking to others.
Other great political and military figures of his period, such as Napoleon Bonaparte, were famous for rousing speeches and famous for skillful maneuvers on the battlefield, Washington’s strength lay in his calm, quiet belief in his mission.
During the darkest days of George Washington’s role as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolution (1776-1781), he rarely if ever lost his composure and never lost his faith in the divine and the cause of American independence.
After the war, Washington underscored his attitude in the Thanksgiving Declaration of October 3, 1789, assering that, “It is duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor.”
He particularly wanted Americans to be grateful for “the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty” that they were experiencing and “for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed,” which few other people in the world could claim.
Washington firmly believed in the freedom of religion and the right of each individual to follow their conscience. “The path of true piety is so plain as to require but little direction,” he wrote in 1789. Instead of preaching, he believed in leading by example, both personally and politically. “Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair; the rest is in the hands of God,” he said.
Abraham Lincoln: The Great Emancipator
While Washington’s unfailing belief in American independence helped make a country where there was none before, Abraham Lincoln was faced with a very different challenge when elected as President in 1860. He had to try to keep together the country that Washington had helped create.
With southern states seceding from the U.S. out of protest at the prospects of slavery being abolished, the duty of holding America together fell on Lincoln’s shoulders.
Like George Washington, there was little in his upbringing which would seem to indicate his destiny as leader of the United States. His family was poor, and he grew up in the relatively wild and unsettled backwoods of Kentucky and Indiana before settling in Illinois.
Abraham Lincoln’s opposition to slavery developed gradually over the course of his career as politician and orator, culminating in his belief that the promises made in the Declaration of Independence (1776) and divine justice were more important than the economic privileges of slaveholders.
As Lincoln wrote to Henry L. Pierce in 1859:
“This is a world of compensations; and he who would be no slave, must consent to have no slave. Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves; and, under a just God, can not long retain it.”
Lincoln never desired conflict with the southern states, always holding out belief that some compromise would be found to allow the United States to stay together. As he told the South’s leaders in his inaugural address on March 4, 1861:
“You have no oath registered in Heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to preserve, protect and defend it.”
Once the war began, Lincoln was dismayed to see fellow Americans fighting and killing each other, and dedicated himself to putting the country back together. As he said in the Gettysburg Address in 1863:
“We here highly resolve resolve that these dead shall have not died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.”
After issuing the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, which freed all slaves in Southern states, Lincoln would go on to the monumental task of bringing the U.S. back together. His faith in America’s divine calling as a free nation, following Washington’s lead, gave him a remarkable sense of optimism.
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds,” Lincoln declared in his second inaugural address on March 4, 1865. Uninterested in seeking retribution against the South for its rebellion, he instead favoring rebuilding the country.
Both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln had to lead America through difficult wars to ensure the country’s survival. Both Presidents faced extreme adversity and persevered in their belief in a higher power and the destiny of the country. And both of them ultimately prevailed in their missions, despite overwhelming odds.
Even today, their names still embody the greatest aspects of America’s legacy.