Last week, some of us celebrated a long weekend with President’s Day. During my lifetime, President’s Day has evolved from the celebration during my childhood of the lives and accomplishments of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
As a child in elementary school, I recall cutting out silhouettes of Washington and Lincoln. I don’t recall if we spoke about why these two presidents were singled out for their accomplishments. This likely came in middle and high school.
Both men shared February birthdays, but there had to have been more than just this for our annual commemorations of their birthdays. George Washington after a long and illustrious career as a military leader reluctantly assumed the presidency when asked by his new country.
From what I have learned of Washington’s accomplishments, he was not an exceptional leader. Instead, I think part of why we revere him is that he ushered this new country into the community of nations. And after two full terms, he decided to return to his Virginia estate. For over a century, every president who followed Washington took his lead, serving only two terms in office.
Though Lincoln was not the father of a nation like Washington, one could argue he served as a second father of a nation given that he led the United States through its most trying era with the Civil War. At all costs, Lincoln strove to preserve the Union which his predecessors had fought so hard to establish. His immortal “Gettysburg Address” referenced the nation’s birth with his “four score and seven years ago,” recalling the impressive words of Thomas Jefferson’s “Declaration of Independence.”
We can only speculate as to what Abraham Lincoln’s legacy would have been had he been able to serve out his second full term. Would Lincoln have sought an unprecedented third term to deal with the struggles of Reconstruction? Sadly, we will never know as the assassin’s bullet cut short his life and administration.
If we consider the pantheon of great presidents, one could certainly argue for the inclusion of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson not only served his nation as president, but he served his predecessors as a diplomat, too. Jefferson’s work in the “Declaration of Independence” alone would have brought him lasting fame. As president, Jefferson purchased Louisiana and fought to preserve the rights and liberties of this nascent nation against a too-powerful federal government.
One of my favorite assignments when I teach AP US Government and Politics is to ask my students to name and research their favorite president. The Presidents previously mentioned in this column are often cited, but Presidents Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama are other favorites, too.
One of the topics we cover is the Executive Branch/Presidency. As a teacher and citizen, I respect the Office of the Presidency though I may not always admire the occupant of the Oval Office. This coming fall will be an important election for this nation. My fervent desire is that whoever wins the presidency will serve the office well in the spirit of his illustrious predecessors.
Nicolas Shump is a longtime educator and writer in northeast Kansas. He can be reached at email@example.com.