IN THE thick of the Civil War, a preacher in the North gave a sermon on George Washington’s birthday in which he declared, “Coming generations may have as much occasion to bless Abraham Lincoln as we have to bless George Washington; and the muse of history may record with equal pride his name who broke the yoke of slavery, and whose strong arm struck off the chain of British tyranny.” Presidents’ Day honors both Washington and Lincoln, but the joint celebration is rooted mostly in the coincidental timing of their birthdays. Yet these two figures, each engaging the essential question of equality, frame the main narrative of American political identity — not just in the past, but now. The question presents itself once again: Can the democratic idea survive powerful forces arrayed against it?
By a succession of well-known choices, Washington turned the abstraction of a nation ruled by “the people” into something real. A military commander deferring to a nascent Congress, he established the principle of civilian control. Upon victory, when he might have become an American Napoleon, he disbanded the army and returned to his farm. His personal prestige was the bridge from the Revolution to the Constitution. Unanimously elected president by the Electoral College, he eschewed trappings of monarchy, honored the separation of powers, resigned after two terms, saw to the transition, and staunchly defended the republican ideal in his farewell address. He created the presidency we know. Democracy was all theory until George Washington showed us. And then, at death, he ordered his slaves set free — a signal of what had to come.
Though Abraham Lincoln hated slavery, the war he fought was for union. Yet he ultimately recognized the deadly moral contradiction that was destroying America from within. A country built on popular sovereignty could not survive with a portion of its people regarded as property. Moreover, once Lincoln saw what scale of killing the Civil War had unleashed, he knew that saving the Union alone could never justify it. If anything could redeem total violence, it was only abolition. Without freedom for slaves, there would be freedom for no one.
Out of the war came a transcendent new identification of freedom with equality — a right belonging to every person everywhere. America was reborn as a beacon of the world’s hope. That this vision rose from an ocean of blood meant that tragedy born of violence would overshadow the nation, and so it has.
How do the familiar stories of Washington and Lincoln resonate today? At a time when the country seems impossibly polarized, with the political order held in contempt, and the government itself dangerously dysfunctional, can the celebration of these national heroes restore a sense of an “America” extending beyond a government so despised, and a politics so deplored? Patriotism is an essential virtue, but love of country is real only when it reckons with what is required for the country’s moral center to be preserved.
Washington and Lincoln are paired as tribunes of equality and freedom, but those virtues depend on each other. Today, in the name of freedom — defined in our time by market forces that wall off individual well-being from the common good — the ideal of equality is being destroyed.
The threat of a democracy-killing aristocracy comes now not from kings, but from new economic dynamics that control politics, block social mobility, mock shared opportunity, create a permanent underclass, and elevate a royalty without titles. The forces doing this are impersonal and hard to identify, and the check of government has been emasculated. Periodic protest, especially from underemployed young people, has given vent to the anguish many feel, but the reforms required are massive and, so far, unimagined.
Slavery was an evil apart, but today’s systemic injustice threatens the moral meaning of America in ways that might seem familiar to both Washington and Lincoln. President Obama, hammering at a “dangerous and growing inequality,” warns that it poisons the nation’s future — not just for those left behind, but for everyone. That sense of universal commonwealth, the whole people joined in one destiny, is what must be rescued. A civic holiday recalls beloved heroes precisely to bring such shared legacy alive, at least in some modest way. Celebrating the past with Washington and Lincoln is for the sake of the present. Versions of the challenges that made them great still confront us. Their example is an encouragement — and a demand.James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.