By Richard Land,
This month Americans celebrate on Presidents’ Day the birthdays of the country’s two greatest presidents, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Washington, the wealthy southern plantation owner, and Lincoln, the log cabin born, Midwestern, self-made son of the soil, came from starkly different backgrounds and life experiences, and yet they literally shaped America into the nation it ultimately became. No other presidents have been as informative and inspiring and molding the American national character and its form of government, not to mention the presidential office itself.
George Washington was indeed the father of the country. He guided the new born nation successfully through its first great crisis, the Revolution. Overwhelmingly popular as a national hero, having led the Continental Army to victory over the modern world’s first super power, Great Britain, Washington spurned offers to become a monarch and refused to shackle the newly created American presidency with the title, preferments, and prerogatives of European monarchy.
Most historians believe that Washington’s greatest gift to his country was to impose upon himself a voluntary two-term limit on presidential service, relinquishing political power and returning to private life at Mount Vernon. This extraordinary, virtually unprecedented voluntary surrender of political power bequeathed the tradition of the restraint of executive power in the federal government that has served the nation well, now for more than two centuries. King George III is reported to have said when he heard that Washington had stepped away from power after two terms, “Then Washington is truly a great man.”
Almost all Americans would agree. He helped us forge a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
Abraham Lincoln became president in the midst of the nation’s second great crisis, the split over slavery that descended into a horrible, bloody civil war, American against American for four terrible and destructive years. The entirety of Lincoln’s presidency was filled with preparation for war, war itself, and its bitter aftermath, made yet more bitter by perhaps the worse individual calamity to ever befall the American people, Lincoln’s assassination. In the midst of the terrible blood letting that was America’s Civil War, Lincoln struggled for answers to provided greater meaning and purpose that would justify the agonizing suffering, tormenting the nation, North and South. Elton Trueblood meaningfully described Lincoln as the “theologian of American anguish.”
In America in 1863, President Lincoln journeyed to Gettysburg, the site of the bloodiest battle ever fought on American soil. The land was still scarred and littered with the aftermath of the great three day battle that had been fought there three and a half months earlier. Lincoln had come to dedicate a cemetery for the tens of thousands of Union soldiers who had been killed. His speech became an almost instant classic, as Lincoln managed to distill into such pithy language the ultimate meaning of the struggle and the unique nature of the American experiment in self-government. The simple but timeless words of his Gettysburg address grabbed the heart and mind as if they were spoken yesterday: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.”
Abraham Lincoln really did distill the essence of the American experiment at Gettysburg. Lincoln declares, “That these dead shall not have died in vain. That this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and the government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
Now we know from an eye witness what the emphasis was in the last lines of that speech. Most people today say “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” but Lincoln, when he delivered the speech, said “government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
President Lincoln and Washington before him, the people were sovereign, and the
government gained its authority from the consent of the governed, not top-down government. It is important for Americans to remember this priceless national heritage, as evidence abounds that America faces a crisis of confidence in themselves, in their government, and in their future. It is time for Americans to look to their historical heritage as embodied in President Washington and President Lincoln and remember that we are the ones who confer power on the government, by our consent, and the government is there to serve us.
This year we will elect a new president, a third of the Senate, all of the House, and a good portion of our governors and of our State Houses. We have the opportunity to remind our elected officials and those who would be our elected officials, that they derive their authority from the people, and that they can be replaced when they forget for whom they work, and it is government of the people, by the people, and for the people that shall not perish from the earth.
May God bless America
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