Americans must not ignore the advice of our greatest presidents

The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., on July 14
Greg Nash

Presidents’ Day was designated by Congress for loftier purposes than providing an opportunity for great furniture and mattress sales. It was established, first, to honor George Washington and, later, to pay homage to all U.S. presidents.

Washington and Abraham Lincoln are rightly regarded as our greatest presidents, both for what they did for our union and for the advice they left behind. We certainly should honor them on their day. But it is essential that we also take their sage words to heart.

Having led the Continental Army to victory against British forces and served two terms as president of our fledgling democracy, Washington had much to say about what Americans needed to do to preserve our form of government. His Farewell Address, much of which was penned by Alexander Hamilton, gave stark warning about the dangers of extreme political partisanship. 

Washington warned that political parties can “become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people, and to usurp for themselves the reins of government.” Extreme partisanship, he cautioned, “kindles the animosity of one part against the other, foments occasionally riot and insurrection” and can bring about “disorders and miseries” that “gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual.”

It is uncanny that Washington could have predicted the rise of a would-be autocrat such as Donald Trump, who would employ all of these means to try to maintain his grasp on power. Washington urged that the “force of public opinion” should be brought to bear to “mitigate and assuage” out-of-control partisanship.

Today’s Republican Party has ignored Washington’s advice and warnings. Instead of trying to prevent hyper-partisanship from “bursting into a flame,” America’s national GOP leaders have fanned that flame. Those who dissent, like Reps. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) and Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), are cast into the rhetorical fire. 

Even before his election, Abraham Lincoln picked up the theme of unity over partisan division. In 1858, he gave wings to one of his most remembered phrases, “A house divided against itself cannot stand…”

Political partisanship at that time was even more intense than at present, and things only got worse after Lincoln’s election. A mob tried to break into the Capitol on Feb. 13, 1861, to disrupt the electoral vote count, but, unlike last Jan. 6, they were kept out by security. Lincoln evaded an assassination plot later that month, he was inaugurated in March and war broke out in April.

The Civil War was commenced and fought over the issue of slavery — whether new states would be slave states or free states. During his presidency, Lincoln came around to the belief of freedom and equality for the slave population. Following the war, those principles were engrafted into the U.S. Constitution by the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. They are an important part of his enduring legacy. Lincoln and that legacy were honored by the Republican Party for many years at Lincoln Day dinners and events. The dinners and other events are held in many locations around the country in the month of February, often in conjunction with Presidents’ Day.

Sadly, the tenor of those events has taken a dramatic turn, starting in the early 1970s with President Nixon’s Southern strategy, which was designed to woo voters in the former slave states. Lincoln’s name is honored at those gatherings for founding the GOP, but his legacy has quietly been rejected by a wide swath of Republicans. He would not recognize the party that he helped to found to oppose slavery.

Lincoln would be heartbroken to learn that his Republican Party is now controlled by those who seem to care little for the rights of all Americans — that the toasts raised in his name on Presidents’ Day are among crowds who are dedicated to limiting voting rights, who question birthright citizenship, who flirt with the idea of secession, who embrace so many of the repugnant policies that he would surely oppose, who refuse to condemn the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol as the insurrection it was. 

What would Lincoln think of the Republican National Committee’s recent characterization of the insurrection as “ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse”? He would obviously be repulsed by the idea of carrying out a violent attack on the Capitol to prevent a peaceful transfer of presidential power and injuring 140 Capitol Police officers in the process.

As people take time during this Presidents’ Day to celebrate Washington, Lincoln and the other presidents who have honorably served this great country over the many years, we should all spend some of that time taking to heart their words and legacies. There is much we can learn from them about respecting and working with one another for the common good. Both Washington and Lincoln graphically spelled out the evils of disharmony and the benefits of working to make the United States a more perfect Union. We all can and should take part in trying to achieve that goal.

Jim Jones is a Vietnam combat veteran who served eight years as Idaho attorney general (1983-1991) and 12 years as a justice of the Idaho Supreme Court (2005-2017).

Tags Abraham Lincoln Adam Kinzinger American Civil War Capitol attack Donald Trump George Washington Liz Cheney Political ideologies Presidents Day Republican Party Southern Strategy

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