On this day in 1885, all federal offices were closed for the first time in honor of President George Washington’s Birthday. The holiday, which has come to be known as President’s Day was eventually moved to the third Monday in February. President’s Day seems to be more fitting as there are other commanders-in-chief whom we like to celebrate… often for our own personal reasons.
It is as impossible to not celebrate Washington as it is to understand or relate to him. Although biographies by authors like Ron Chernow have humanized our first president, he still remains mythical in the eyes of most Americans. But Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln are a little more accessible and nowhere is our nation’s constant struggle between luck and labor better displayed than in these two men.
Both Lincoln and Jefferson appear on Mount Rushmore, have their own memorials and remain ranked among the Siena Research Institute’s five most effective presidents. Yet they adopted radically different approaches to achieve their success. As you stare in to Lincoln’s tired eyes or reflect on the symbolism surrounding Jefferson, you realize are fascination with them are often more about the way all Americans work to succeed in our country than what either of these men contributed to it. In life, and especially in politics, you are either a Lincoln or a Jefferson.
Born into wealth, Thomas Jefferson authored the Declaration of Independence at age 33. In his final years, he designed the University of Virginia. During his tenure as our third president, he kept our young nation out of the Napoleonic Wars and negotiated its largest land growth to date with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Despite this expensive acquisition, he still reduced the national debt by a third.
Jefferson excelled outside politics as well. Monticello is chocked full of inventions designed by its owner. Jefferson’s awe of Jesus’ philosophy – but doubtfulness of Christ’s divinity – caused him to write his own Jefferson Bible from the ancient scriptures, a task aided by his fluency in Greek and Latin. Jefferson was also a skilled violinist whom The Washingtonian lists as a member of the Washington Music Hall of Fame, along with the likes of Duke Ellington and Patsy Cline.
Abraham Lincoln is not in the Washington Music Hall of Fame. He isn’t even considered brilliant, or quite frankly, even handsome. Lincoln achieved his success through a relentless drive. Born of humble origins in Hardin County, Kentucky, Lincoln worked tirelessly to educate himself and eventually become a lawyer and Illinois State legislator. Law partner William Herndon once said, “His ambition was a little engine that knew no rest.”
On occasion, that engine stalled. Despite his drive, Lincoln’s pre-presidential career was topsy-turvy. He lost several elections and suffered two nervous breakdowns before squeaking into the White House in a three party race in 1860.
During his presidency, Lincoln slept very little and grew gaunt as he led the nation through the Civil War and then forged a peace with the Confederacy afterwards. He accomplished this amazing feat as he dealt with an unhappy Congress, a crazy wife, and the death of one of his sons. Even if you are a NYC-is-the-center-of-the-universe Yankee or a Rebel flag waving southerner, there is no argument that the Civil War remains America’s darkest period and its defining moment. Despite intense hostility, Lincoln also managed to beat Democrat George McClellan in the election of 1864, thus making him the first two-term U.S. president in thirty years. Lincoln embodied the little engine that could.
This is, of course, a black and white representation of both Lincoln and Jefferson. Just because Jefferson is celebrated as an intellectual stallion doesn’t mean he wasn’t a workhorse. And Lincoln did not save the Union by sweat alone. I’m sure he could play an instrument, too. Still Jefferson is remembered as the dreaming, sophisticated genius; Lincoln, the pragmatic hard-worker.
You cannot like both men equally, and even more, you cannot see yourself in both of them. They are representative of the Type A and B personalities that keep Washington thriving. You are either a Lincoln or a Jefferson.