Monday, February 20, 2012

Thoughts on Presidents' Day...


A little research revealed that there is a fair amount of dissention regarding whose birthday we’re celebrating today.  Wikipedia says it’s Washington’s birthday.  On the other hand, the U.S. Parks Service says it’s a day set aside to celebrate both George Washington's and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays.  Then there’s the fair state of Alabama, my home state, which officially celebrates the day as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson Day.
     I’m going to go with Washington and Lincoln, because I am thinking about them.  I invite you to take a minute or two and join me in those thoughts.  This country would not exist had not each of them appeared when they did or had either of them failed to act as they did.
     In the beginning, before there was a United States, there existed a group of colonies who were very wealthy but practically powerless.  A few of the richest members of those colonies were incensed at the amount of money they paid to the king who had set them up in business.  Determining to do something about their situation, they convinced one of their numbers, George Washington, to put together a ragtag army and take on their oppressor – the King of England.  Then, the men who recruited Washington to fight for them, failed to support him monetarily, or in any other way that mattered.  That pretty much took away his home field advantage.
     The fact that George Washington, with little or no help from anyone, did in fact win the war, is a tribute to the power of his conviction, intention, and ability to motivate – being in the right place at the right time didn’t hurt anything either.  However, winning the war and freedom from England wasn’t George Washington’s greatest gift to America.  It’s what he didn’t do that made the United States what it is today.  George Washington went against the wishes of his supporters and constituents by refusing to become the King of America.   That’s right.  The first Americans did not want a President.  They wanted a King.  Washington made it clear that the only way he would lead the country was as its President.
     And what of Abraham Lincoln?  If you want to consider a bad job description, think of what the relatively unknown politician, and eight-time failure from Illinois was up against.  Half the country believed that slavery was acceptable, the other half believed it wasn’t, and both sides were willing to kill anyone who opposed them.  Ultimately Abraham Lincoln reunited the country and, yes, it did cost him his life. 
     Washington created the United States as we know it, when he refused to become its king.  Lincoln saved it during the hour of its greatest peril when he followed his heart, knowing he could well lose his life.
The darkest hours this country has ever faced brought forth its two greatest leaders.  
     The world, not just America, owes them both more than we can imagine.  It’s fitting to consider them today, and every other day that brings a threat to the freedom of even one man, woman, or child on this planet.  It brings me a measure of peace to know that on at least two occasions in history, that threat itself has brought forth its resolution.
This is a perfect moment to consider a few of the words of President Abraham Lincoln, spoken at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, November 19, 1863 -------
“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” 

11 comments:

  1. I recently had to help my 5th grader (don't ask, sometimes you just have to step in) complete a report on the New Hampshire colony, and got a great education on one of those "richest members" you write about here. Do you think we will have another great man/woman step up to help us in our current hour (or decade) of need? Great tribute, Bert!

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    1. Mary Katheryn,
      Christina and I were helping a student get ready for a speaking contest when I first heard of the movement to make Washington "King of America." It is amazing how much of what we think we know about history is in fact someone else's poorly conceived notion of events.
      I don't think we are very far from being in the condition where only an exceptional man/woman can bail us out. And, I should add, the world has become a global community and the problems we face are global - that means the exceptional person could come from anywhere on the planet.
      Historically, exceptional people haven't fared very well. Maybe with enough support, the one who steps up, can get the job done and leave with his/her life still intact.
      Bert

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  2. There was a time when Washington's birthday was celebrated on the 22nd each February regardless of the day of the week and we had it off. Inasmuch as it coincided with my birthday, I liked to think it was my celebration, but then we got efficient and switched holidays to either a Friday or Monday to provide us with 3-day weekends. So, the meaning of the 11th minute of the 11th hour of the 11th day or the 11th month be damned, we'll just change it from Armistace Day to Veterans Day. Inasmuch as I'm a veteran, I'm cool with that. Win one, lose one.

    Actually now, Presidents Day is to celebrate all Presidents, even the ones you don't like. Phooey.

    Finally, as a cantankerous historian, I do feel obliged to correct one thing. Washington didn't "beat" the British. He fought them to a stalemate. The whole thing might have sat there until the Colonists realized they would be back under the Crown of England when the next wave of Redcoats arrived, except something happened in England. That something was a "pirate" by the name of John Paul Jones. He attacked the island nation; sailed all around it destroying merchantmen and fishermen vessels at will. Raided manor houses and towns. And the English suddenly realized that the "Oaken Shield" (the fleet) wasn't invulnerable. The French and the Spanish learned the same lesson and formed an armada to invade England with Jones in charge of the warships. The British refused to come out of their ports to engage Jones, and the Spanish and French refused to go ashore until they did. So they faced each other down until disease forced the invading armies to return home.

    Jones then engaged a British man-o'-war, the Serapis, with his aged and leaking flagship, the Bon Homme Richard. Although Jones's ship was sunk, he captured and sailed away on the Serapis. The whole battle played out with an audience on the English coast who rushed back to Parliment and demanded peace with the Colonies.

    That's the history, folks...

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    1. Thanks Jack,
      I appreciate the addition of the detailed history.
      Bert

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  3. This is all very interesting, i didn't know about Presidents Day until today but I am all for days off work. The king aspect is interesting as it seems that at the time people could only comprehend what they had experience of in the past, good on Washington that he did not take the crown. I also did not know about the John Paul Jones escapades either- my day for learning things.

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    1. Paul,
      Thanks for the comment. I think I was absent the day John Paul Jones was discussed, so we've both learned something and that's always a good thing because learning is another way of expanding the box we live in.
      I think we've earned another day off.
      Bert

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  4. Now - surely you guys would still prefer to have us reigning over you and enforcing proper spelling. Please NO - that's a joke. Do not throw any of my tea in the water please. As kids we worshipped Kennedy and Elvis. My father worshipped Ike and Roosevelt for saving us from the Nazis. My daughter( an American citizen) used to live in NYC (my son in law is in the US military). I used to see your statue of Liberty so often and reflected on its significance. America, like Europe, is many cultures - the sum of which (currently) is the best available freedom. From the UK - here's to all of your presidents.

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    1. Emma,
      You are great - thanks for the comment. You hit on the heart of the matter - we DO want someone reigning over us - the problem is, we're not very good at selecting who and we don't want to involved in reigning over ourselves. Me thinks it time for us to pick up part of the load, while there is still a load to pick up.
      Bert

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  5. Love the history lesson. The truth is in the details, but the broad strokes make great statements for speeches and stokers of patriotism.

    I had heard that the original idea that the Continental Congress debated was to choose a king of America, but eventually, more rational ideas won out.

    I like to hope that the US can get over its current stalemate, the way it's locked into 19th-century debates, and move forward. I don't think the answer lies in one exceptional individual, but rather, like Washington's "ragtag army," the collective abilities and efforts of many, many US citizens will help your country move forward, get out of its economic mess and become what it once was.

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    1. I could not agree more (see my comment to Emma) - however, there has to be a figurehead at the bow of the boat pointing the way - in fact, there is a famous painting of Washington doing just that. So, all we have to do is find a boat, with the right man or woman standing in the bow, get in, push off, and take up an oar. That should do it.

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  6. Great write, Bert! I love that Lincoln quote at the end. Old Abe was pretty poetic, wasn't he? You can just hear those words...echoing down the halls of time.

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