This Monday marks the traditional holiday meant to honor two of our most beloved, and perhaps most misunderstood, American presidents.
Presidents Day honors our first president, George Washington, and our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln. As schoolchildren, and perhaps even as adults, we regard them as stoic figures of greatness. They accomplished great deeds for the nation. They lived in times that are foreign to our modern lives. Their cold, white marble statues are everywhere, staring at us blankly. They are important but distant to us.
And that’s where these men are misunderstood.
Yes, they both assumed power at critical points in our nation’s history, and, yes, of course they made decisions that steered our nation on the right course. They were great leaders.
But they were also men of humor, wisdom, intuition and human frailty. They were more like us than we perceive.
The 2012 film “Lincoln” did a commendable job portraying the man behind the marble. His sense of humor, his personal and family struggles, his frustrations and occasional foibles were well presented. Like the book it was based on, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals,” we saw a side of Lincoln that had been wiped away by simplistic history lessons.
Lincoln is best known for his Civil War-related speeches. He was also a man of unusual wisdom. Here are a few of his observations of human nature that are worth noting:
“It has been my experience that folks who have no vices have very few virtues.”
“It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.”
“People are just about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”
“And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.”
“When the conduct of men is designed to be influenced, persuasion, kind, unassuming persuasion, should ever be adopted. It is an old and a true maxim, that a ‘drop of honey catches more flies than a gallon of gall.’”
“Be sure you put your feet in the right place, then stand firm.”
Washington is perhaps the more marble of the two. His world is so foreign to our own, and even in his day he was admired as a sterling and prestigious figure, a man who clearly stood above others.
But Washington, like Lincoln, was a keen observer of his fellow man. Here are a few of Washington’s quotes that are worthy of repeat:
“It is better to be alone than in bad company.”
“It is better to offer no excuse than a bad one.”
“There is nothing which can better deserve our patronage than the promotion of science and literature. Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness.”
“Happiness depends more upon the internal frame of a person’s own mind, than on the externals in the world.”
“Worry is the interest paid by those who borrow trouble.”
Mother’s Day is still a few months ahead of us, but both Lincoln and Washington had something interesting to say about their mothers:
Washington: “My mother was the most beautiful woman I ever saw. All I am I owe to my mother. I attribute my success in life to the moral, intellectual and physical education I received from her.”
Lincoln: “All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.”
So on Monday, take a moment to reflect on Lincoln and Washington not as marble statues, but as flesh and blood men. Their personalities and observations are as relevant to us today as they were in their own time.