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GUEST OP-ED - Washington & Lincoln: Presidents for the ages

With a renewed and enthusiastic interest in our current presidential electoral process, we ought to seize the moment to reflect on the accomplishments of the great American leaders we celebrate this week. Unfortunately, many of our citizens, especially younger ones, simply equate this holiday with just another three day weekend. As a former high school social studies teacher and an adjunct professor of political science for the past six years, it is always a great disappointment to me at the beginning of each semester when I see how little our students appreciate the early history of our country and the influence of the leaders that we should be honoring this week. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln both triumphed in war, shaped our national identity, and changed the course of our history. The heart of their leadership was pure character. Most do know that in our great experiment of American democracy, Washington was our first president. However, what is not often remembered is that without him as the leader of our continental forces for eight years, America would not have won our Independence from Great Britain. Furthermore, his central role in the Constitutional Convention shaped our current U.S. Constitution and gave others who had confidence in his character, the faith to ratify this new document replacing the Articles of Confederation. One delegate to the Constitutional Convention accurately noted that the powers of our presidency would not have been as vast “had not many of the members cast their eyes towards General Washington as president; and shaped their ideas of the powers to be given to a president, by their opinions of his virtue.” Lincoln, who many critics thought too feeble to become our president at the time, had the courage and wisdom to take full advantage of the constitutional powers granted to the Commander-in-Chief in order to preserve our nation during the Civil War. As a result, our country has a system of democratic free-labor capitalism rather then slave labor. According to James M. McPherson, author of numerous books on Lincoln and the Civil War, it was due to Lincoln’s character and resolve that “the loose union of states became a nation.” During our sometimes partisan battles of today, we should remember the experiences and lessons of these leaders. After all, as George Washington said in his farewell address in 1796, “The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations. With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles. You have in a common cause fought and triumphed together; the independence and liberty you possess are the work of joint counsels, and joint efforts of common dangers, sufferings, and successes.” Whether it relates to a dynamic and heated presidential election; disagreement over balancing presidential power with legislative oversight relating to the war on terrorism and civil liberties; or working to ensure that healthy deliberation and reason for the public good win the battle over bitter partisanship, these words from our nation’s first president in 1796 are just as true today as they were then. Perhaps the legacy of these leaders and this holiday has taken a backseat or has been relegated to one of super sales at the mall. If so, then we all need to embrace the challenge of reinvigorating ourselves and our children to the mighty struggles and ideals that shaped our great nation. This week and throughout the year, let us renew our commitment and remember to teach our younger generation about the great contributions of Washington and Lincoln to our country. Bob Capano is an adjunct political science professor living in Brooklyn.

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