Washington and Lincoln could not have come from more different backgrounds. And yet, in spite of vast differences, both men not only attained the highest office in the land, but the admiration and respect of generations. Both consistently rank as the top two presidents by most scholars.
While Lincoln was born dirt poor in Kentucky, Washington was born to a wealthy Virginia planter. Washington’s family was well-connected to Virginia aristocracy while Lincoln’s family was obscure and undistinguished.
Young Washington was a surveyor in the Ohio Valley wilderness. Young Lincoln split log rails. Washington had an extensive military career, advancing to the rank of general. Lincoln’s military career was limited to a few weeks as captain of a regiment of volunteers in the Black Hawk War between the United States and Native American Indians.
Washington was often described as a handsome man, “majestic in his bearing.” While he frequently looked solemn, few would describe Lincoln as either handsome or majestic.
Both, however, had the necessary “right stuff” when it came to dealing with the great crises facing the country. Washington guided a young united states through a Revolutionary War against England, presided over the Constitutional Convention before being elected the country’s first president. Lincoln is credited with “saving the Union” after a great Civil War.
Washington had an incredible ability for bringing conflicting points of view into harmony. While Jefferson and Hamilton were at constant odds concerning the size and power of a central government, Washington successfully worked both men toward cooperation and unity.
While Lincoln stood firm on principle, he was nonetheless an unrivaled compromiser. “Lincoln’s whole nature,” writer Harriet Beecher Stowe observed, “inclined him to be a harmonizer of conflicting parties rather than a committed combatant on either side.”
“The spirit of concession and compromise,” Lincoln wrote, “that spirit which has never failed us in past perils… may be safely trusted for all the future.”
On the day of his first inauguration, after the South had seceded, Lincoln left his home in Springfield for Washington with these words:
“I now leave… with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of that Divine Being who ever attended him, I cannot succeed. With that assistance, I cannot fail.”
In an exceedingly brief second inaugural address, Washington focused on personal accountability.
“Previous to the execution of any official act of the President the Constitution requires an oath of office. This oath I am now about to take, and in your presence: That if it shall be found during my administration of the Government I have in any instance violated willingly or knowingly the injunctions thereof, I may (besides incurring constitutional punishment) be subject to the upbraidings of all who are now witnesses of the present solemn ceremony.”
In his second inaugural address, Lincoln focused on a collective accountability, hoping to unite the country after the Civil War.
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
What made both Washington and Lincoln great, however, was their consistent commitment to leadership and justice. They will forever be quoted for their wisdom as well as their character.
“Few men have virtue to withstand the highest bidder.”
“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power. – Lincoln
“I hope I shall possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all titles, the character of an honest man.” – Washington
“I have always wanted to deal with everyone I meet candidly and honestly. If I have made any assertion not warranted by facts, and it is pointed out to me, I will withdraw it cheerfully.” – Lincoln
“Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair…” – Washington