Lincoln on Presidents' Day: Image vs. Reality

By:  Jack Kenny
02/19/2013
       
Lincoln on Presidents' Day: Image vs. Reality

Lincoln's birthday, February 12, appears to have lost some of its former aura, as all presidents are now supposedly covered by the amorphous, all-purpose "Presidents' Day," but his time in office retains most of the luster that it acquired after he was killed.

"Presidents' Day," as it is now commonly called, retains some vague connection to Washington's birthday, if only for the purpose of advertising "Washington's Birthday sales." The traditional birth date of February 22 has been stretched to create a Monday holiday — this year on February 18 — to accommodate America's patriotic devotion to three-day weekends.

But Lincoln's birthday, February 12, appears to have lost some of its former aura, since all presidents are now supposedly covered by the amorphous, all-purpose "Presidents' Day." (Let us now praise Millard Fillmore.) That is ironic, because despite the energetic work of some recent revisionist historians, Lincoln remains the most revered — some say "deified" — of all our presidents. Historians have repeatedly ranked him the greatest U.S. president, with FDR coming in second.

Both were wartime presidents, dealing with crises that threatened the very survival of the nation. The nation survived, and the presidents have received the glory, since those who died in the battlefields — who gave, as Lincoln put it, "the last full measure of devotion" — are too numerous to remember. The presidents were the managers of the winning teams, but as Yankees manager Casey Stengel said after his seventh World Series win in 10 years, "I couldn't 'a' done it without the players."

Politicians are not saints, at least not in our time. Yet Ambrose Bierce's definition of a saint in his Devil's Dictionary applies to politicians as well: "A dead sinner, revised and edited." That seems especially true when the sinner has died while serving in the nation's highest office. Both Lincoln and Roosevelt died while in office, though death came to Lincoln in far more sudden and dramatic fashion. Roosevelt had sought and won the office so many times that awaiting his death seemed the only "exit strategy" available to Republicans in exile. Though others died in office, the term "President for Life" could be fittingly used to describe only one American head of state.

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