Washington, Lincoln could instruct us

Steve Haycox

America had a three-day weekend at the start of this week, established by Congress in 1968. Many people think it is a celebration of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington's birthdays combined; but it's not. When the holiday was created, both presidential birthdays were under consideration, Lincoln's on Feb. 12, and Washington's on Feb. 11 (Old Style) or Feb. 22 (New Style). But the solons could not agree on how to combine them, so made the act a commemoration of Washington's alone. Strangely, the holiday can never fall on his actual birthday: the day off must occur each year on the Monday between Feb. 15 and 21.

As a civic event, President's Day is largely unsatisfactory. There's not much that might be called "civic attachment" associated with the weekend, i.e., reflection on what these presidents may mean in the evolution of the American republic. In most states, such as Alaska, it's also not a state holiday, so those offices remain open, and virtually no commercial establishments close; in fact, numerous "Presidents Day sales" encourage shopping.

It is somewhat ironic that as a young man, Lincoln, whose birthday Congress might have arranged to commemorate but did not, gave a famous speech on civic attachment. By attachment, Lincoln meant something a bit different but not unrelated to today. Speaking in 1838, a time of a breakdown of law and order over abolitionist agitation in a number of cities and states, Lincoln argued that if the government falls into disrepute for being thought not to pursue goals held in common with its citizens, i.e., if the citizenry conclude they cannot trust the government, then the future of that government, and in our case, the future of democracy, is in jeopardy.

What is perhaps most interesting about that speech, given before the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Ill., and titled "The Perpetuation of our Political Institutions," was the remedy Lincoln prescribed. The citizenry, Lincoln asserted, must, by the resolute employment of "general intelligence and sound morality" cultivate "a reverence for the constitution and the laws." "Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason must furnish all the materials for our future support and defence (sic)." Note that in this last, Lincoln separates reason and emotion. To stay loyal to the rule of law, to the framework of the Constitution, will take "unimpassioned reason," not uninformed emotional responses and sentiments.

It's useful to ask what Lincoln might have thought of today's mistrust of government, manifest in one instance, for example, by the tea party movement, and in another by the Occupy Wall Street campaign. Neither movement seems ready to take the law into its own hands, seeking yet to pressure government to redress its grievances through peaceful means. But both surely can be said to be assaulting government, the tea partiers demanding less government, the Occupy people more. In this regard, the Occupiers seem the more trusting, placing their faith in new legislation to increase taxes on the wealthiest so as to reduce the deficit and provide services to the 15 percent of Americans, 52 million, living in poverty, and to those afraid they soon may be also.

Two who have helped inspire the tea party movement, Karl Rove and Grover Norquist, want to cripple government, arguing that more government means less freedom. This notion is heard often in Alaska, where many imagine that the "last frontier" means freedom from government and its inconveniences. Lincoln might have cited Alexander Hamilton in The Federalist No. 1 on this point. Hamilton wrote that in the ratification debates it would be forgotten "that the vigor of government is essential to the security of liberty; that, in the contemplation of a sound and well-informed judgment, their interest can never be separated." In just one painfully recent example, we've seen the removal of government oversight of reckless risk-taking by banks and financial institutions rob countless Americans of the freedom to own their own homes, and even to be employed, which has contributed to much of today's mistrust. This is an area of government authority Rove and Norquist do not want restored.

Reflection on the presidencies of Washington and Lincoln might teach us a lot about government now, and Congress could do better at encouraging it.

Steve Haycox is a professor of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Steve Haycox