Presidents Day: Three cheers for dead white European males

 Stephen B. Young, The Daily Record Newswire

Besides putting up with more of a difficult winter last week, we had a day off on Presidents Day, the 21st. I wonder why.

Not once did my young grandchildren ask me to tell them stories about George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. I didn’t think to host a family meal in order to read out Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and discuss seriously the state of race relations today or the achievement gap in the light of Lincoln’s idealism, or reflect on just who “we the people” really are these days.

I was young enough to have spent hours in elementary school classrooms working away under a picture of a serious George Washington. But for my children and grandchildren, his picture high up on the classroom wall has been replaced with those of a pantheon of well-known personalities.

This is a fitting metaphor for the evolution of our political culture away from a few more simple certainties to a collage of values and stances, all claiming equality with one another, leaving us largely without common standards happily accepted.

Our political undertakings have lost their core as we have become more and more fractured along various cultural fault lines.

But have we perhaps thrown the “baby” of common good out with the dirty bathwater of traditional, prejudice-prone nativism?

Fairness in entitlements coupled with equality for all as the principal goals of our new national mythos have brought on a belittlement of greatness. They have encouraged us to think small, to value our own goods over the national ideal of sacrifice for a greater good.

Maybe it’s time to rethink Presidents Day and restore significant admiration for two dead white European males.

Washington and Lincoln had much in common as iconic leaders. Of course, Lincoln took Washington as a role model. Young Lincoln chose to be a Whig in politics, which was, in the 1830s and 1840s, the political orientation of those who wanted to align with the vision of Washington and Hamilton for national idealism and prosperity.

Both Washington and Lincoln were war leaders. Their hands as leaders were thus forced. Each needed to hold together a coalition in order to win the conflict. Coalition management demands keeping your eyes fixed on the big picture, not primarily on the little things that matter to small people.

But, vitally, since your vision is to be carried out most by those with smaller minds and intentions, a great war leader must also defer to an important degree to those who manage the details. The leader needs followers who personally buy into the program of action and make it part of their sense of vocation in life. The big picture needs to be personalized and customized for them and their needs.

The task of the leader is to set a broad course within which many can find hope and inspiration, confidence and emotional security. The war leader must be idealistic as well as very practical.

And, from the perspective of today’s American, what is so unattractive about that?

Second, both Washington and Lincoln were formal men, though in different ways. In their formality, they held themselves apart — not above others, just reserved and self-possessed.

Washington seems to have grounded his formality in the social manners of a gentleman: gracious but not familiar, agreeable but not a show-off, polite to all but non-committal until one had to make a decision; respectful but not unctuous or flattering.

As a boy, Washington had copied out a list of good-mannered behaviors. Two of his rules were: “Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present” and “Sleep not when others Speak, Sit not when others stand, Speak not when you Should hold your Peace, walk not on when others Stop.”

The proper gentleman of Washington’s upbringing conveyed an inner strength, a reserve of will and determination that did not need to be put on general display. To Washington, a true gentleman was not a prig and never stooped to condescension, even to servants.

Washington’s code of personal decorum and rectitude brings to mind Gene Autry’s similarly inclined Cowboy’s Code of the 1950s: “A cowboy never takes unfair advantage — even of an enemy; A cowboy never betrays a trust. He never goes back on his word; A cowboy always tells the truth; A cowboy is kind and gentle to small children, old folks, and animals; A cowboy is free from racial and religious intolerances; A cowboy is always helpful when someone is in trouble; A cowboy is always a good worker; A cowboy is clean about his person in thought, word, and deed; A cowboy is a Patriot.”

By contrast, Abraham Lincoln — the farm boy, the self-taught frontier lawyer, and rail-splitter — was not a gentleman after the mode of Washington. Yet Lincoln too had his formality of respectful distancing of himself.

Lincoln hid behind humor. Rather than confront or otherwise put people off, he charmed them with jokes and folksy tales. But in his levity could be found insight and wisdom. He used his humor often to convey parables about human nature. His wit displayed both reserve and moral courage.

Lincoln also used formality of language in his speeches and written proclamations and pronouncements. His model for style was the Bible. Echoing cadences from the King James translation of the Bible allowed Lincoln to imply that he was in touch with the wisdom of the ages.

Their techniques for formal self-presentation allowed Washington and Lincoln to stand before the people as men of principle. It was their “principledness,” so to speak, which granted them powers of leadership in times of war.

Yet oddly both men were tactically very flexible. Neither eschewed compromise. Both were masters of holding coalitions together by finding ways of meeting the various needs of different constituents.

Lincoln thus famously drafted the Emancipation Proclamation. In reality, the policy was narrow and legalistic. It was not a freeing of the slaves, only the technical implementation of a war power over property already under military governance. Lincoln thus demonstrated having a principled stand on the great issue of the day but in a tactical way that did not lead to fissures in his coalition supporting the reunification of the country.

Today, sadly, we seem to have forgotten this method of being “principled.” On both the Tea Party right and the redistributionist left, we have mistaken dogma for principle and we bristle at the thought of compromise with our “enemies,” who allegedly oppose us in “principle.”

When we hear proud, heady talk about refusal to compromise, the speakers are thinking more in terms of dogma than ideals. Dogma is literal, legalistic, black or white. It draws lines where you can only be on one side or the other.

Principle, by contrast, is much more open-ended. It looks to the coming future and seeks to align people and developments with core values. Principle is not petty, but general, in implication and in application. It seeks to achieve purpose, not impose rigid conformity.

Yet because of its strong core of value and vision, principle halts its accommodations before crossing the line where opportunism and sycophancy hold sway.

In their times and in their ways, Washington and Lincoln did a good day’s work for our country.