Monday, February 21, 2011

President's Day

Presidents Day is ostensibly a time to celebrate the great men who helped shape the nation.
We once celebrated the birthdays of Washington and Lincoln separately, a honor befitting their  legacies. It’s universally accepted that their accomplishments merit unequal treatment in that regard. It was Richard Nixon who decided to replace Washington and Lincoln’s birthdays for the more generic "Presidents Day", which takes place on the third Monday in February.

George Washington, the father of our country, is best remembered for holding the militia together during the early years of the Revolutionary War. His time as president is sometimes considered an afterthought to his military escapades. But perhaps his most decisive triumph came in the summer of 1794, when as president he personally led the militia that put down the Whiskey Rebellion. Washington knew that failure to end the insurrection would render the Constitution — and the notion of Federal supremacy — impotent.  It was too important to delegate to others, so he donned his old uniform, saddled up, and marched through Western Pennsylvania, where he quickly scattered 7,000 disgruntled distillers.  How the course of history would have been different had he failed to squelch the uprising.

Abraham Lincoln called his decision to emancipate the slaves the defining act of his presidency and the 19th century.  He was wrong in one regard: it’s arguably the defining action in American history.  What’s often overlooked is how much Lincoln personally struggled with it.  While he found slavery morally contemptible, he didn’t believe the president had the constitutional power to abolish it. Moreover, he was concerned that emancipation would push the border-states into the Confederacy, a potentially lethal blow to the Union. But with the war going poorly, he came to realize that universal freedom and preserving the Union were inextricable; one not achievable without the other. Emancipation was a huge gamble, one that ultimately paid off.

One could argue that Ronald Reagan’s decision to call the Soviet Union an “Evil Empire” marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War.  In an instant, he had forever branded the longtime adversary as being on the wrong side of history, a fate that would reveal itself in the ensuing years. Many in the White House, including some of his closest aide, did not want Reagan to use the phrase.  They thought the term "impolitic and un-presidential", but Reagan felt otherwise. He was determined to end the notion of moral equivalency between the two systems, a concept that was gaining steam with the media elite.  With a few simple words he shattered that myth.

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