A Day in the Life

Washington and Lincoln

What do you think of when you hear the names George Washington and Abraham Lincoln? Do you think of service and sacrifice or leadership and honor? Does your mind turn to chopped down cherry trees and stovepipe hats, white marble monuments or the one and five dollar bills? I'm sure some imagine pitched battles on wide landscapes while others recall high school essays on declarations and proclamations but, for my part, I just think "America."

President George WashingtonIn fact, I can think of few men who more fully personify our nation's highest traditions of leadership and public service than our first and sixteenth presidents. So, in honor of Presidents Day, I sat down and read President Washington's 1796 Farewell Address and President Lincoln's 1863 Gettysburg Address.

I have read both of these speeches a number of times over the years and I have always been moved by oratorical skill and artistic beauty of the language. But this time something different happened and I imagined these two great men not as national heroes and marble statues, but simply as men as flawed and fallible as any one of us.

I recognized that, in 1775, Washington was only two years older than I am now. Yet he risked his life and his family's honor by taking command of a ragtag group of soldiers and let them against the King of England and the most powerful army in the world.

President Abraham LincolnI saw Lincoln as the man who suffered a string of personal, professional and political failures before being elected President in 1860 and, despite being characterized in the press as everything from a buffoon to a tyrant, still found faith in the "better angels of our nature" and shepherded our nation through its darkest hour.

Now, as I look at these two men again, I see more clearly the true embodiment of freedom rather than liberty because where liberty requires nothing than the absence of chains, freedom bears with it our shared responsibility for and service to one another.

You see, in the final analysis, Washington and Lincoln were great men...but men all the same. They were not angels or demons, prophets or kings. They were simply citizens, just like any one of us.

But in that common heritage we find our common ability to rise above failure, doubt and fear and our common cause in service to one another and ensuring that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.

I encourage everyone to read both President Washington's 1796 Farewell Address and President Lincoln's 1863 Gettysburg Address. I am sure you will enjoy them as much as I have and, as always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts.


Stephen K. Benjamin
Columbia, SC