"Presidents Day" ("Presidents’ Day" also acceptable) is a federal holiday officially designated as "Washington’s Birthday" and celebrated on the third Monday of February. As the first federal holiday to honor an American citizen, the holiday was celebrated on Washington’s actual birthday, February 22, but in 1971 the federal holiday was shifted to the third Monday by the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. In the late 1980s the theme has expanded the focus of the holiday to honor another President in February, Abraham Lincoln (February 12) and other Presidents of the United States.
Never mind that the main pushers of the holiday are advertisers and retail stores for sales, the day deserves a blip on our radars as we are engaged in presidential primaries to select a new President. Maybe it is an appropriate time—in between hitting the sales—to remember past Presidents in the midst of a critical reassessment of the role of the Presidency now.
Since the House and Senate have sent a bill to the President requiring that all the government intelligence services follow the Army Field Manual’s restrictions on torture, a bill he says he will veto, I was thinking about the war policies of Washington and Lincoln as the subject of my reflections this Presidents Day weekend.
George Washington: The first commander-in-chief, the only one to bear that title without simultaneously being president, George Washington’s position was unambiguous. In his charge to the Northern Expeditionary Force, Sept. 14, 1775, he ordered:
"Should any American soldier be so base and infamous as to injure any prisoner. . . I do most earnestly enjoin you to bring him to such severe and exemplary punishment as the enormity of the crime may require. Should it extend to death itself, it will not be disproportional to its guilt at such a time and in such a cause... for by such conduct they bring shame, disgrace and ruin to themselves and their country."
After the Battle of Trenton, New Jersey on December 26, 1776, when Washington learned that the Continentals were preparing to run some of the British Empire’s German mercenaries through what they called the "gauntlet." Washington issued this order:
"Treat them with humanity, and let them have no reason to complain of our copying the brutal example of the British Army in their treatment of our unfortunate brethren who have fallen into their hands."
These firm principles were set down by Washington before America had a Constitution, a Bill of Rights or a Congress—before the institution of the Presidency. What it had was its first surviving institution, which was the Army. And its first commander-in-chief was the great militia veteran of the French and Indian War, a man whose experience in warfare towered over others, George Washington. Maybe our current President so easily disregards Washington’s policies because Washington was a general, the same way Bush has disregarded his generals’ plea—including General David Petraeus—to reject torture.
Abraham Lincoln: This is not easy for me. I grew up in the Texas Panhandle where, at the time, President Lincoln was not highly regarded. It was hard for me as a kid because I knew that my great grandfather was the only member of his family in Kentucky to fight for the Union. His mother, father, and siblings firmly identified with the Confederacy. So great was my great grandfather’s belief that slavery was wrong that after the war he never again had contact with his family. He went to Texas to start a new life and he didn’t have sympathy for the old South views there either. Even though I tried to fit in with my peers, I knew and was proud of my great grandfather. I was a closet admirer of Lincoln from my earliest days. That’s why reading Thomas J. DiLorenzo’s article, "Bush’s Lincolnian Assault on Civil Liberties (Or, Al Gore is Right!)" reflecting on Lincoln’s war policies makes me uncomfortable.
Gore’s criticisms of the Bush administration are striking in that they reveal that when it comes to waging war and dealing with civil liberties issues, the party has not changed at all since it first became The Republican Party of Lincoln. For example, he posed the rhetorical question of what George Washington would think of the fact that "our current president claims the unilateral right to arrest and imprison American citizens indefinitely without giving them the right to see a lawyer or inform their families of their whereabouts, and without the necessity of even charging them with any crime"?
These were exactly the policies of the Lincoln administration. Habeas corpus was unilaterally (and illegally) suspended by Lincoln and the military, with the help of a secret police bureaucracy operated by William Seward, imprisoned tens of thousands of Northern political opponents. They were thrown into gulags such as Fort Lafayette in New York harbor where they were never charged, had no idea how long they would be held, and their families often had no idea of their whereabouts. (See James Randall, Constitutional Problems Under Lincoln; and Dean Sprague, Freedom Under Lincoln). The Virginia patriot George Washington would have undoubtedly drawn his sword and fought another revolution over such an outrage.
What would Washington think, asked Gore, of our president’s contention that he can "label any citizen an ‘unlawful enemy combatant’ and that will be sufficient to justify taking away that citizen’s liberty – even for the rest of his life, if the president chooses. And there is no appeal"? Again, the hyper-paranoid Lincoln administration, which saw enemies everywhere, labeled virtually anyone who disagreed with its policies as spies and traitors who were therefore subject to military arrest and indefinite imprisonment without due process.
DiLorenzo continues with Gore’s litany of what Jefferson, Franklin, and Madison would think of our current President and his policies. Then, he concludes:
All of this is why the Claremontistas and other neocons are such Lincoln idolaters. They call him a "model statesman" because they favor an executive dictatorship, as opposed to the kind of president the founding fathers had in mind They favor a dictatorial president who will pursue their nationalistic political objectives for them. "National Greatness conservatives" need a dictator to run roughshod over the Constitution – and the public – if they are to achieve their goal of greater glory for The Fatherland. So far, they have been extremely successful in molding the Bush administration in just this way, as Vice President Gore correctly pointed out in his Georgetown speech.
Gore's speech and DiLorenzo's article were both written in 2004 before the revelations on torture authorized by the Bush administration.
Maybe it took someone I respect, like Gore, to make me question the view of Lincoln I grew up cherishing. What I’ve read so far hasn’t changed my view of Bush but it certainly sobers my view of Lincoln. What was it William Faulkner said? "The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past."
I haven’t read DiLorenzo’s book, The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War, but I will. Maybe I’ll go over to the bookstore on Presidents Day, pick up a copy, and learn something more about the present.
Honest reflection is never easy. I welcome your Presidents Day thoughts.