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Presidents Day: Celebrating Leaders Who Served the People

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The third Monday in February has been a landmark calendar day known as Presidents Day for the past 50 years.

Falling between the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, it is one of those days that encourage acknowledgement and appreciation for our heritage and two of its key figures.

With the presidency itself on center stage in recent weeks, and with an election campaign now in full swing, the holiday prompted a bit of presidential reading in honor of the occasion and in recognition of the seriousness of this part of our political life.

Focusing on the holiday honorees, I chose the first and second inaugural addresses of Washington and the first and second inaugural addresses of Lincoln, as well as his more familiar Gettysburg Address.

Both presidents stood at crucial thresholds in the nation’s history.

Washington was at the initial threshold, with an uncertain and challenging future ahead.

We have been treated in recent weeks with numerous allusions to the founders and their intentions for the national experiment.

The planning was careful; an impressive collective wisdom forged a structure and process for governing the newly conceived society. But what lay ahead was anything but certain.

Lincoln’s threshold was the conflict that threatened the very survival of the nation, not yet 100 years old; in many ways, it was the greatest crisis yet to face the noble experiment.

Washington’s first address was long and comprehensive, filled with vision and policy, reflecting the wordy eloquence of his era.

His second was much briefer, reflecting a more seasoned (and perhaps humbler) leader, less bold in vision but more committed in service, with a clear articulation of the integrity that was a necessity for the office.

Lincoln’s first inaugural address was also long, discussing at length a number of the issues that faced the nation on the brink of a violent conflict over the question of slavery.

His second address, much shorter and better known than the first, amid that conflict, spoke to a nation broken, but with a hope that beyond the deep distress of the period, the “better angels of our nature” would enable the rebuilding of the dream of those who had envisioned it.

Perhaps Lincoln’s best-known statement, delivered at the battlefield of Gettysburg, is very short and carefully focused, reflecting a profound balance of humility, realism and hope.

Reading these addresses by these two iconic presidents refreshed my appreciation not only for their eloquence but also for the way in which their words reflected some deeper qualities of character that defined the presidency as a service to the people based on integrity, morality and reverence.

Every age in the life of a nation is a kind of threshold, where the heritage of the past and the promises of the future come together in decisions that reflect the stewardship of the gift of the heritage and the possibilities of the future.

Some thresholds are more crucial than others, where the commitments of the national character are tested by appeals from the “lesser angels of our nature.”

The caretakers of the dream in any period become a succession of “founders” for those who follow, modeling the virtues and features of character that provide the nation with its strength or, sadly at times, illustrating its weakness.

We have seen both in our history. Washington and Lincoln offer us noble examples of that strength.

In order to add a contemporary focus to my Presidents Day reading, I read carefully the texts of the two most recent addresses by our current president, both delivered the day after his acquittal by the Senate of his impeachment by the House of Representatives.

The first was his remarks to the National Prayer Breakfast, and the second was his speech to a gathering of supporters in the White House later in the day.

I think I’ll not say any more. Happy Presidents Day.

Colin Harris

Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.