A top health official is reporting that forty-four Americans on a quarantined cruise ship in Japan have been infected with the deadly coronavirus. Hundreds are fleeing Jackson, Mississippi, as the Pearl River rises to its highest level in decades. And authorities have confirmed the deaths of two men killed in a large avalanche in Colorado.
When diseases and disasters make the daily headlines, it’s easy to conclude that we are facing unprecedented challenges. So, let’s draw some encouragement from the presidents whose birthdays we celebrate today.
A holiday with three apostrophes
Washington’s Birthday is a United States federal holiday observed on the third Monday in February. The day honors George Washington, who was born on February 22, 1732. Some states also celebrate the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, who was born on February 12, 1809.
However, most states have combined the two into Presidents’ Day (the usage in Texas and nine other states), President’s Day (the usage in nine states), or Presidents Day (the usage in four states). Some states use the occasion to honor all of our presidents.
Wherever we place the apostrophe, it is fitting that we set aside a day to remember George Washington and Abraham Lincoln for what they did and, significantly, what they did not do.
“He’s the greatest man in the world”
In The American Story: Conversations with Master Historians, David M. Rubenstein interviews experts on some of the leading figures in American history. He begins, of course, with our first president.
Rubenstein notes that Washington “essentially invented the office [of president] and established traditions and practices still in use more than two hundred years later.” He fulfilled three roles that helped birth our nation.
First, Washington led our troops to victory over the seemingly invincible British forces. Second, he presided over the Constitutional Convention, a gathering that was unlikely to have occurred, much less succeeded, without his presence. Third, as the first US president, he ensured that the new American government would work and set precedents that have helped to guide his successors.
Americans are familiar with these remarkable achievements. But many of us are less familiar with the crucial significance of what came next.
In Washington’s day (and ours), generals who led revolutions usually held onto power as long as they could. Washington could readily have had a third term and presumably served as president until his death. A Senate committee wanted to call him “His Highness, the President of the United States, and the Protector of their Liberties.”
He refused such an imperial title and a third term, allowing the American people to elect his successor and thus ensuring that our democratic experiment would become a reality. In a day when the world was ruled by kings and emperors in crowns and robes, he chose for the now-familiar Gilbert Stuart portrait to wear a simple black suit.
At the end of Washington’s second presidential term, England’s King George III said, “If George Washington gives up power, as I hear he’s going to, he’s the greatest man in the world.”
In many ways, he was.
“I’m the humblest of all of you”
Rubenstein interviewed Doris Kearns Goodwin on our sixteenth president. She noted that when the Republican contenders for president were photographed, probably in 1859, Abraham Lincoln was not even mentioned. William Seward was expected to be the nominee; Salmon P. Chase and Edward Bates were the other candidates with the largest support.
Lincoln never attacked the other three. During the Republican Convention, he knew he would not be the delegates’ first preference, so he positioned himself as their second choice. When Seward failed to gain a majority on the first ballot, delegates began considering Lincoln, who won the nomination on the third ballot.
Most politicians would have moved to delegitimize such powerful rivals, but Lincoln did the opposite. He immediately reached out to his rivals with letters that said, “I’m the humblest of all of you. I need your support.” The three ended up campaigning for him, then joined his cabinet when he won. And their leadership was indispensable throughout Lincoln’s administration and the preservation of the Union.
“Humility comes before honor”
Without the humility of George Washington, our republic could have become a monarchy before it began. Without the humility of Abraham Lincoln, our union could have been dissevered forever.
The best way to honor them is to follow their example.
The first temptation is the root of all temptation: “You will be like God” (Genesis 3:5). Friedrich Nietzsche correctly observed that the “will to power” is the basic drive in human nature.
Today is a good day to remember that “when pride comes, then comes disgrace, and humility comes before honor” (Proverbs 15:33). To make progress with humility, consider Rick Warren’s observation: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.”
And thinking more of your Lord. C. S. Lewis: “A proud man is always looking down on things and people; and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.”
Are you looking down or up today?