Having just read Ron Chernow’s biography Washington, I’ve been struck both by the similarities and the differences between George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. A compare-and-contrast smacks a bit of an American history course final exam question, but here goes.
Education. Although they grew up in strikingly different circumstances – Lincoln in log cabin poverty, Washington as the son of an early-dying, slave-owning Virginia plantation owner – both felt deprived of adequate education. It’s well-known that Lincoln basically served as his own schoolmaster, doing the job rather successfully. Chernow writes: “The degree to which Washington dwelt upon the transcendent importance of education underscores the stigma he felt about having missed college.” Adams, Hamilton, Jefferson and Madison had all been to college.
As young men both worked as surveyors.
Both had problems with debt. Lincoln eventually paid off the debts incurred as a result of trying to become a small-scale merchant. Despite being land-wealthy – he owned five farms – Washington lived beyond his means and had money worries up to the time of his death.
Internal improvements. Both worked to foster infrastructural development, an obvious need of a young country. Washington wanted the Potomac to become a water highway into the Ohio Valley, which never happened, and was a booster for what was then called “the Federal City” which eventually bore his name. As an Illinois legislator, Lincoln backed a variety of improvements that eventually drove the state to the brink of bankruptcy.
Both came to the Presidency at times of crisis when the ability of the country to maintain its unity was being tested. Both suffered scurrilous press abuse (which seems to go with the office). The Presidency wore down both men, as late portraits of Washington and late photographs of Lincoln amply demonstrate.
Both showed a tremendous capacity for growth. Both demonstrated extraordinary self-mastery. Washington possessed legendary self-control, virtue and rectitude. By 21st century standards these traits seem stodgy, a trifle uncool. But they were exactly what was needed at the time.
The man for his time. Perhaps the most striking similarity – perhaps even the most striking aspect of each man considered individually – is the fact that each proved to be exactly the right man for his time as President. (One sometimes really does wonder if Providence is at work.)
Following his success in the Revolutionary War in securing the thirteen colonies’ independence from Great Britain, Washington was not only respected throughout those colonies, but revered. Appropriately called the “indispensable man” of his time, he acted as President of the Constitutional Convention that moved the colonies past the Articles of Confederation to a nation of United States. He was also twice unanimously elected President by the electoral college.
Washington took office at a time when many doubted that the republic envisioned by the Constitution could actually succeed. Since monarchy was what most citizens knew, many assumed that the drift toward establishing a monarchy could not be resisted. The reverence for Washington strengthened the uncertain unity of the colonies as they became states. But it also meant that he would be the obvious person to assume an American kingship. Fortunately for the country, Washington had no ambitions in that direction. He brought virtue, rectitude and self-control to the office, setting an example for his successors to follow. The fact that he had no children removed any temptation to set up a dynasty. The fact that he had served during the Revolutionary War without pay, asking only that Congress cover his expenses, meant that he was unlikely to use the office to enrich himself, which he did not. As the first President, Washington was conscious that how he conducted himself in office would establish patterns likely to be followed by his successors. His giving an inaugural address was not, for example, required by the Constitution. It became traditional because Washington decided to do it. When he left the office after two terms, all Presidents followed that example until Franklin Roosevelt 140 years later.
When Lincoln came to the Presidency, compromise about the contradiction at the core of the American nation was no longer possible. That contradiction was the attempt to hold together two different economic systems, the one at the South agrarian, the other at the North industrial. The southern one involved slavery, an evil from the northern point of view that could not be tolerated. The problems between the North and the South, already evident in Washington’s time, had been papered over by the Constitutional Convention and a series of grand Compromises. But the two economic systems were antithetical to each other. By 1860 they had ruptured the national unity. Lincoln’s conviction was unshakable: there could be no extension of slavery. With the Deep South seceding, his task was to restore the Union, holding the border states if at all possible.
Interestingly, both Washington and Lincoln foresaw a time when the institution of slavery would prove itself uneconomic and wither away. When he retired to Mount Vernon, Washington realized that housing and feeding his slaves and their children cost more than their labor produced. But that withering away was too far distant and the social consequences seemed baffling. Moreover, slaveholders demanded the extension of slave territory. So the war came. Despite the North’s industrial superiority, victory eluded it. Mediocre generals tried Lincoln’s patience; they caused him despair. When he realized that the war could not be won without emancipating the slaves, he took that action. The contradiction at the heart of American life could not be sustained. Lincoln became the “indispensable man” who began to end that contradiction.
Frederic Hunter is author of ABE AND MOLLY: The Lincoln Courtship, wwwAbeandMolly.com. Available on Kindle and Nook.