My Musings

Presidential Greats

Presidential Greats

This February, let us honor three great Americans who profoundly define the American spirit.

President Ronald Reagan’s birthday – February 6, 1911
President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday – February 12, 1809
President George Washington’s birthday – February 22, 1732


Ronald Reagan's official portrait

Ronald Reagan (1911 – 2004)

In the 1990s, I saw an unforgettable display at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California, featuring many heart-rending letters from or about prisoners of conscience and persecuted missionaries around the world. Each letter moved President Reagan to specifically act on behalf of freedom and justice. Not every story had a happy ending but our 40th President took great pains behind the scenes to use the power of his office to win the freedom of imprisoned and forgotten missionaries. Perhaps he was inspired by this ancient admonition:

Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering. (Hebrews 13:3)

With deep conviction, Reagan cared about human freedom for individuals and nations. His legacy goes far beyond mere caring–he also got results. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said, “Ronald Reagan had a higher claim than any other leader to have won the Cold War for liberty and he did it without firing a shot.” Reagan understood the moral reprehensibility of communism and the moral necessity of replacing it with institutions of liberty.

Lech Walesa, co-founder of Solidarity and past president of Poland, called Reagan a “friend” and said, “His policy of aiding democratic movements in Central and Eastern Europe in the dark days of the Cold War meant a lot to us. We knew he believed in a few simple principles such as human rights, democracy and civil society.” Walesa added, “…we owe him our liberty.”

Abraham Lincoln (1809 – 1865)

Abraham Lincoln’s birthday used to be a national holiday but today’s children have no memory of that. Charles Darwin was born on the same exact day as Lincoln and, sadly, our secular culture is increasingly turning toward Darwin and away from Lincoln in terms of informed honorable memory. Of these two, one believed that “all men are created free and equal” (Lincoln speech, 1858) and the other that the races of humanity are not equal because they are differently evolved.

Lincoln faced many disappointments and failures in his personal life. As our 16th President, he inherited a bitterly fractured nation wherein liberty was illegal for many black Americans. Leading our nation through its darkest hours, he endeavored to ensure that our “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” (Gettysburg Address, Nov. 19, 1863). During the Civil war, Lincoln said, “The times are dark, the spirits of ruin are abroad in all their power, and the mercy of God alone can save us.” After the war, he called for binding up our nation’s wounds without malice (Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865).

President Lincoln, 1864, with youngest son, Tad

In his early years, Lincoln was not so religious, but during the darkest days of the Civil War and when his son Willie died suddenly, he began to turn to the Bible and prayer. Before his first term was over, Lincoln had declared more days of prayer, fasting, and thanksgiving than any president before or since. Under him, our Thanksgiving celebration became an annual national holiday. Today, he still stands as an example for how to find strength during the terrors and tragedies of our lives, both as a people and as persons.

George Washington (1732-1799)

Finally, let us never let a February pass without honoring the father of our country. While all other founding fathers were signing founding documents, General Washington was in the field training an army in the courage, stamina and skill required to stand behind the words on those documents. Just keeping his army on the field under harrowing conditions was incredible. Only a man of his stature and dignity could have commanded the respect of his men under the conditions they faced.

The power-hungry French Emperor, Napoleon, in exile, whined, “They wanted me to be another Washington.” Napoleon was incapable of such greatness. Washington lost more battles than Napoleon, but he hung tough until he won his last one. Napoleon won nearly every battle he fought, except his last. Napoleon had genius, but Washington had moral character and strength of conviction. Big difference!

Washington Crossing the Delaware, by Emanuel Leutze, 1851, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The American Revolution was one of the few in history that did not end in tyranny, as did the French, Russian and Chinese revolutions. George Washington was a primary reason why American freedom persisted and thrived. After winning a nearly impossible victory against the greatest military power on earth, Washington presided over the drafting of our Constitution and then served as our nation’s first President. But his greatest deed may have been to step down from his powerful perch. Washington lived in an era of tyrants; like King George III, Robespierre, Napoleon, and others. Washington had enough popularity and prestige to become the first American king. In those chaotic times, calls for him to rule for life were frequent and loud. Nevertheless (I love that word), he gave up his power and returned to his farm, refusing to trade our hard-fought freedom for the personal prestige of wearing a crown. For over 2,000 years since Cincinnatus returned to his plow, no leader in similar circumstances had willingly done what Washington did. He symbolized the American spirit at its best with his personal virtue, renowned integrity, undying perseverance and unselfish sacrifice.

CONCLUSION:

The American heroes above all combine greatness with imperfection. So does our country. But greatness can be squandered. Consider the warning of our 30th president, Calvin Coolidge:

When the reverence of this nation for its great men dies, the glory of the nation will die with it.<>/b

 

The views expressed on this blog are personal and belong to Joel Solliday unless otherwise stated. They are not, intended to characterize the views of the Lewiston Church of Christ or other organizations to which I may refer.

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About the Author:

Joel graduated from Pepperdine University with a B.A., completing two majors: Art and Religion. He went on to earn the Master of Divinity degree from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. The views expressed on this blog are personal and belong to Joel Solliday unless otherwise stated. They are not, intended to characterize the views of the Lewiston Church of Christ or other organizations to which I may refer.

Discussion

  1. Claire  February 1, 2012

    I didn’t know about Reagan’s efforts on behalf of missionaries. Thank you for that.

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  2. Claire  February 1, 2012

    What’s the source of the Darwin quotation?

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    • Joelsolliday  February 1, 2012

      It was not meant to be a quotation. That last quote mark is a typo. But Darwin (like most in his day) did believe that the races of humanity are not equal because they are differently evolved. Social Darwinism was a movement that shows how Darwin’s teachings were used (and abused) to promote racist presumptions and policies. But Darwin should not be blamed for the Soical Darwinists who took his presumptions farther than he did or intended for society. But I was just summing up a presumption in his teaching about the origins of various races in the human species.

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      • Claire  February 2, 2012

        You’re right that Darwin was neither a founder nor a proponent of Social Darwinism. Quite to the contrary, confronting the apparent differences among “what are called races” of humans (the term really didn’t have the meaning then that it has now), he concluded that all humans are much more alike each other than they are different. Far from believing (as Lincoln said, it is true, in an off-hand, impromptu comment during a political campaign) that “there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality,” Darwin understood humans’ common ancestry as the foundation for their mutual sympathy, a sympathy that advances with civilization. In a chapter on “Moral Sense” in _The Descent of Man_ (published in 1873, after Darwin had been brewing on the idea of evolution for some forty years), he says, “As man advances in civilisation, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races.”

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        • Anonymous  February 2, 2012

          The point about common ancestry among races (in Darwin’s thought) can also be made among all living creatures, tending to “equalize” humans and animals too. At some point, then, it becomes hard to discuss notions of equality meaningfully when nature is so full of inequity. It remains true that the observable differences in the races of human beings were explained by Darwin as the product of evolution. They were differently evolved. While I don’t blame Darwin for all that the Social Darwinists said and did, I think his ideas were fertile soil for their teachings. Why? Because God was left out. The only solid ground I see for a higher view of human dignity and equality requires the perspective of faith in a purposeful Creator, I think. But Darwin was not a social scientist and he was just trying to be true to his observations in nature. And in observing nature, we see that the principles and practices of equality are not so common (an understatement), both in realms of environment, behavior and make-up. Without the perspective of faith in God, the inequities so pervasive in nature are left standing without any means or reasons to challenge them. I don’t think there is any way to build a moral framework without God in the picture and that’s where Darwinism falls short in its view of man, in my humble opinion.

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  3. Claire  February 1, 2012

    Lincoln had come a long way in his understanding of race by the time of the Emancipation Proclamation. I think what is most admirable about him at that juncture–and what makes him most a hero in my eyes–is how far he had come intellectually and morally in response to experience. In 1858, even while he was proclaiming that “all men are created free and equal” he had this to say about racial equality:
    “While I was at the hotel today, an elderly gentleman called upon me to know whether I was really in favor of producing a perfect equality between the negroes and white people. [Great Laughter.] While I had not proposed to myself on this occasion to say much on that subject, yet as the question was asked me I thought I would occupy perhaps five minutes in saying something in regard to it. I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, [applause]-that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied every thing. I do not understand that because I do not want a negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. [Cheers and laughter.]”
    – Abraham Lincoln; Fourth Debate with Stephen Douglas, September 18, 1858

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    • Anonymous  February 1, 2012

      I doubt many politicans want to be remembered for every particular comment made in a election debate.  A positive (even heroic) overall view of Lincoln comes more from what he did when he had the chance, rather than what he said in different contexts seeking election (although some fantastic Lincoln quotes can be found among his speeches and writings too).  And his stance on reconciling the North and South after the war (“with malice toward none…”)  showed some greatness.  Regarding slavery, I think his personal view in 1859 was fairlly represented in a line in a letter he wrote on August 1, 1858: “I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy.  Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.”     Claire, your point about Lincoln’s ability to grow and move a long way in the right direction on this issue is good.  But having read some anti-slavery writings from some Puritans, Quakers, a few of some Founders and others before Lincoln, I cannot credit Lincoln with being the most enlightened of his day.  But compared to Stephen Douglas, the other guy in that debate, Lincoln was a saint far ahead of his time.  Also, another Douglas (Frederick, the ex-slave), understood that Lincoln was a mixed bag politician, but he still held Lincoln in high regard (at least that is my recollection from reading Frederick Douglas’ bio).  Thanks for your good thoughts. Joel

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