Presidents Day Celebrates Our Singular Heritage

Presidents Day Celebrates Our Singular Heritage
AP Photo/Julio Cortez
Presidents Day Celebrates Our Singular Heritage
AP Photo/Julio Cortez
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Everyone loves a three-day weekend. Presidents Day promises a welcome midwinter break for students and the nation's workforce, as well as a robust marketing opportunity for the nation's retailers. 

But in this sophisticated and cynical age, do we still honor the presidents we celebrate, as well as the ideals that inspired our nation's founding?

In this time of deep division, is it still possible to agree on an American creed? Or think of America as an exceptional nation, defined from birth by lofty principles of liberty and equality, self-government and the rule of law?

Images of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln in television ads are faint reminders of the holiday's original purpose, which was to recall the leadership of men whose character, courage and vision were critical to the founding and survival of our nation.

Unlike other nations, whose identity is defined by a common ancestry and geography, it is America's ideals, articulated in the Declaration of Independence, that have been at the core of our national identity. Slavery marred America’s founding. But from the battle to end slavery to later campaigns for greater freedom and equality, the principles of the Declaration have been the guiding light throughout American history.

If we now lose a shared appreciation of this heritage, is not our common identity as Americans at risk?

On Presidents Day weekend last year, at the Aspen Institute, we convened an extraordinarily diverse group of community leaders from across the country for a three-day seminar, titled "The Idea of America."

Engaging scholars as moderators, we reviewed the Declaration, the Preamble to the Constitution, selections from The Federalist Papers, the Bill of Rights, Frederick Douglass and Lincoln, as well as more contemporary sources. While the authors of these documents were mere human beings, their immortal words powerfully articulated American ideals and remain a source of extraordinary insight, vision and inspiration.

Our purpose was to see whether, in an increasingly polarized era, these texts could still have deep resonance across our divisions, and while subject to very different interpretations, could help renew our common identity as Americans.

In short, could we, despite our profound differences, still agree upon what we love about America?

This exercise was deeply humbling, as we discussed the extraordinary challenges of our forbearers, from the founding of our nation against all odds, through the struggle against slavery and our bloody Civil War, to the extraordinary sacrifices of World War II and the courage of civil rights workers.

From the libertarian and conservative evangelist to the social justice activist and recent immigrant, participants listened respectfully as others explored how the uplifting and visionary words from these documents bearing such deep historical significance spoke to our common American identity.

Our readings came from our most celebrated presidents—Washington, Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and Franklin D. Roosevelt—as well as former slaves, suffragettes, and immigrants and visitors—Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Mary Antin and Alexis de Tocqueville.

Douglass wrote passionately about the horrors of slavery, but found confidence that rights denied would ultimately be vindicated because of the principles of the Declaration and Constitution. This faith was powerfully reaffirmed a century later in the inspirational words of Martin Luther King.

Other readings addressed our government’s foundations. James Madison, the father of the Constitution, set forth in The Federalist Papers the doctrines of separation of powers and checks and balances, designed to limit the power of demagogues and preclude a tyranny of the majority. A young Lincoln, in the Lyceum Address, gave powerful voice to the rule of law as essential to protect against the tyranny of the mob or an aspiring dictator.

Among the most powerful readings was the Farewell Address of President George Washington. Washington stood alone in his integrity, dignity, leadership and judgment. He commanded the universal respect and admiration of his contemporaries. While Madison, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin constructed an extraordinary architecture of republican self-government, our Constitution itself might not have come into being without the universal assumption that Washington would serve as our nation's first chief executive.

In addition to Washington, the president also recognized in mid-February is Lincoln, whose deep faith in the principles of the Declaration animated his extraordinary career.

Lincoln deeply believed that the promises of the Declaration also embraced African Americans. His ideals were enshrined, after the war and his assassination, in the Civil War Amendments to the Constitution, which sought the fuller realization of the Declaration's principles.

Given the ultimate failure of Reconstruction, as well as the Jim Crow era, generations of racial oppression and systematic denial of civil rights, conflict over the meaning and implementation of those constitutional amendments continues even today.

Lincoln, revered for his unimpeachable character as well as his extraordinary judgment and statesmanship, addressed our nation's greatest crisis with vision, charity and grace. He approached the greatest challenges faced by any president with a pragmatism wedded to the highest ideals, which he eloquently recalled from our nation's founding.

In a time of increasingly bitter divisions, we would do well to recall his immortal words:

"We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."

Wendell L. Willkie II, an adjunct law professor at NYU and fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is a retired business executive. He held several senior legal and management positions in the Reagan and GHW Bush administrations.

Russell Muirhead is the Robert Clements Professor of Democracy and Politics as well as chair of the department of government at Dartmouth College.

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