As a boy the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington were important days. Now there is the generic term Presidents’ Day. The catch all name does not have gravitas. To combat that, just a bit, I wish to call attention to a few books which I recommend regarding each of these men I came to admire over my lifetime.
When it comes to Washington the volume, which is on the bookshelves over my head, The Return of George Washington by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Edward Larson, is my first recommendation. I bought it two years ago at Mount Vernon, but what makes the book unique is that it deals with the time period after Washington stepped down as head and of the Continental Army. He had retired. Those years were not written about in detail before this volume.
As Washington watched how the Articles of Confederation were weak and not working he, along with Alexander Hamilton and other forward thinkers, knew what had to be done. While some worked under the flawed pretext that the Articles could be revamped, others like Washington knew the states needed to be brought into a union with law and order asserting itself from the top. Wayward states were creating havoc, such as not paying off the war debt. Washington in large part saved the United States by coming out of retirement to lead the Constitutional Convention and serve as our first president. We think of this today as events that ‘just happened’. That is a wrong way to view our history. Each step was perilous and the outcomes never inevitable.
On my bookshelves for decades has been Pulitzer Prize–winning author David Herbert Donald’s book Lincoln. It is a brilliant work which showcases the role that strong leadership plays in our national story, along with the need to keep principles front and center. It pounds these issues home with a robust narrative. When President Clinton was asked in one of his last interviews prior to leaving the White House which book he would recommend George Bush read, it was the classic by Donald.
The life and times of Abe Lincoln has been a constant source of confirmation that bold and decisive leadership, an abundant source of humor, and a natural curiosity are the essential ingredients to being a successful President. Time and again, in books both thin and those that stretch into volumes, it is clear that Abe Lincoln was a man of his times, and as noted at his death, now a man that belongs to the ages.
I also wish to mention the classic Lincoln by William Herndon, Abe’s law partner. My copy, though not an original, still is an old copy that I much treasure and it sits near me as I type this post. As I think about Lincoln, and how he grew up in truly poor conditions, and had few reading materials in his youth, I am sure he would be amazed at the many volumes, some more scholarly than others, that have been penned about his life and the impact he had on the nation. He loved to read, and as such I think the best way to honor Lincoln on his birthday is to consider books that might better illuminate his life.
So pick up a book and pour a cup of coffee and step back into history. Without knowing our past there is no way to understand current events, or plan where the nation should head.