This we know about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, the two presidential birthday celebrants in February: Lincoln would have been more fun to hang out with. But let me give Washington--born this day in 1732--and his gravitas their due.
The general on horseback personified the role of the Republic's first presidency perfectly. He was known to be a flawless dancer, light on his feet, to wear the right clothes on every occasion. Part of his legend was for resigning his commission at the right moment and then heading home, over 75 miles of freshly fallen snow, for Christmas.
As president, Washington laid the cornerstone of the Capitol. He always said a few words—and I mean, a few words—at appropriate times, with formality. The original strong silent type, Washington was a Virginia planter who played a plum part with the perfect pitch of a performance artist. And yes, "planter" was a Southern euphemism for slave-owner. Washington owned about 100 persons of color at Mount Vernon and set them free in his will. Nothing Washington ever said or wrote was blindingly brilliant, but it's well to remember he was a man of deeds (like crossing rivers) not words. To judge from the bright and plush interior colors of Mount Vernon, he enjoyed boldness within, too.
Three cheers for the one and only man we've ever elected as president who was born and died in the 18th century. Washington died on December 14, 1799, at home, his Georgian-era sensibility intact. To the last, he was a man of that age.
Abraham Lincoln, elected three generations later, was the first president born outside the original 13 states. That's the first thing to understand: he was an outsider in the patrician club of presidents from the moment of his humble birth. Largely self-educated growing up and coming of age on the Indiana and Illinois frontiers, he wielded great physical strength, matched by his intellectual prowess. Yet he lived in a rough-hewn egalitarian culture that did not allow him to get "stuck up" because of his book-learning.
Lincoln was in fact the first democratic—small d—president. The way he spoke as a lawyer in court, the way he told stories and jokes on the circuit, the way he spoke to fellow citizens in debates and then as president—was face to face, as equals. He could give the same speech to a dozen souls as he gave at the battlefield at Gettysburg, because at his best he struck a chord of intimacy with listeners. Lincoln never talked "down." Washington's speeches are more distant and cognizant of his place atop the political hierarchy. When Lincoln said farewell to the townspeople in Springfield as he set off for Washington, he sensed it would be forever. There were tears in his eyes at the train station and tears in the eyes of his neighbors, friends, supporters. His prose is simply beyond compare, both for its stark beauty and his gift for meeting listeners on the same plane.
So we know the Lincoln knew how strong and smart he was. But he didn't rub it in. From the wrestling matches and conflicts of his boyhood to young manhood, a pattern emerged. Abe Lincoln didn't start fights, but he never lost one. Writ large, that lesson was something the Confederacy tragically learned too late. They did not see the genius in Lincoln's familiar ways and folksy manners, and they made the mistake of thinking he was a "Yankee" they could lick. No, hailing from the West, Lincoln was a total newcomer to Eastern political establishment, but he was not intimidated by it—North nor South. He was, in a way, the first triangulator in American politics, of the sectional divide.
This brings me to what makes Lincoln the best company. Through the Civil War, he kept the stories and the jokes coming—because, he said, he needed them to make it through another heartrending day. A wry wit with a keen appreciation for irony is also what distinguishes Lincoln from all the rest— the 15 presidents before him. Lincoln was the first to have a sense of the ridiculous, to enjoy caricatures of people, to quote a quote he enjoyed more than once. He brought this trait with him from the prairies and the capital city of Springfield. In fact, when President Martin Van Buren made a stop in Springfield, he met the younger Lincoln when he went out on the town and said he had the time of his life!
Lincoln was a man's man—not that he was gay—but men found him refreshing, droll, and fun. He spent most of time in male spheres, and he was a father of four sons. We think of him as a tragic figure who had a melancholy streak. Yet the truth is that Lincoln loved to laugh—and he would probably make you laugh.
Four cheers for the man from Illinois.
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