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4 Lessons from the Legacies of Washington & Lincoln

As the year draws to a close, we’ve been reflecting on all the wonderful books published in 2010, and in doing so, we’ve also realized there are some classics worth revisiting. The authors and friends of Oxford University Press are proud to present this series of essays, which will appear regularly until the New Year, drawing our attention to books both new and old. Below, Edward Zelinsky (author of The Origins of the Ownership Society) shares his thoughts on two fantastic biographies.

My nomination for most relevant book published in 2010 is actually a nomination of two books, both presidential biographies which should be read in tandem: Ron Chernow’s new life of the first president, Washington: A Life, and Professor Eric Foner’s narrative of the sixteenth president’s confrontation with the evil of slavery, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery.

A skeptic would observe that Washington and Lincoln are the two most examined figures in American history. This skeptic would continue that there is little new to say about either of them and that what might be new is not relevant to our times. However, the Chernow and Foner books, both beautifully written, contain four lessons which are pertinent for us today as we confront the long-term national bankruptcy we are imposing on our children and grandchildren.

Lesson one: We were lucky to have had Abe and George when we did. There are no guarantees of such luck in the future.

The argument that Washington and Lincoln were each, in his own way, indispensable is, as a logical matter, impossible to prove. We can’t run a controlled experiment in which we redo history without them to see if someone else would have stepped into the critical roles they played.

But we can speculate about a counterfactual world without Washington and Lincoln. Both Chernow’s and Foner’s narratives lay the basis for such speculation by documenting the extent to which the two most critical periods of American history – the Revolution and Founding, the Civil War – were shaped by Washington and Lincoln.

Washington literally held the country together, which is impressive since there was at that time not much of a country to hold. By keeping the Continental Army in the field under challenging circumstances, Washington kept the Revolution alive. Lincoln, too, held the country together by dint of his personality and political skills.

It was not inevitable that either of them would be where he was when he was there. Lincoln was a relative unknown from the key state of Illinois who also was, in the context of the slavery issue, a centrist in the Republican party of 1860. By such cold political calculations are presidential nominations often determined. Washington was a Virginian and one of the few colonials with military experience. To unify the country, it made sense for a Virginian to command the Continental Army of New Englanders outside of Boston. Subsequent events proved that both men had far more important skills and qualities than those which initially led to their emergence. But that was a matter of luck.

Lesson two: Icons make mistakes, often bad ones.

Washington’s leadership of the Continental Army in New York was dreadful. With today’s 24/7 news cycle and modern communications, he would have been instantly sacked without the consolation of a talk show. Before he found Ulysses Grant, Lincoln turned to the established generals of the U.S. Army who made one blunder after another. What should have been a relatively short conflict become a bloodbath. Lincoln too would likely not have survived his Administration’s mistakes in our contemporary political climate.

It speaks poorly of our culture that it would have scuttled Washington and Lincoln before they could have emerged as the leaders they each became.

Lesson three: Both Lincoln and Washington were consummate and ambitious politicians.

The stony images on Mt. Rushmore are misleading. Abe and George were not saints, but ambitious, effective and often scheming politicians. As the Continental Congress in Philadelphia debated who should command the new Continental Army, Washington showed up in his military uniform. This was the not the hallmark of a modest man.

Lincoln’s pursuit of the Republican presidential nomination was masterful. There was no spontaneous movement to draft the (fairly obscure) man from Illinois. It is unrealistic to expect our political leaders not to be politicians.

Lesson four: But Lincoln and Washington were more than politicians.

Both men had a core of commitments which transcended their respective personal ambitions. Both Lincoln and Washington understood high political office as carrying a responsibility for the nation and its future generations. Each achieved greatness, not simply because of the times in which he lived, but because he understood that his high office made him a fiduciary for those yet unborn. Both Washington and Lincoln were intensely concerned with future generations’ assessments of their lives and careers.

It is here that the absence of a modern Lincoln or Washington hurts us most. As the Baby Boom generation imposes upon its children and grandchildren the burden of staggering national debt, our political leaders talk the talk of fiscal responsibility but are unwilling to walk the walk of fiscal restraint. The nation’s economic future is being squandered on a bi-partisan basis by tax-and-spend Democrats and borrow-and-spend Republicans.

Our current challenge – to avoid long-term national bankruptcy – pales besides the problems which confronted Lincoln and Washington – birthing a new nation and then preserving it through a devastating Civil War. It is unlikely that we will be lucky enough to have a Lincoln or a Washington emerge to lead us to national solvency. If we are going to save our offspring’s future, we must do it ourselves.


Edward A. Zelinsky is the Morris and Annie Trachman Professor of Law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law of Yeshiva University. He is the author of The Origins of the Ownership Society: How The Defined Contribution Paradigm Changed America. His monthly column on OUPblog appears here.

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