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Our Two Greatest Presidents

July 2024
13min read

Without doubt they were Washington, who walked carefully within the Constitution, and Lincoln, who stretched it as far as he dared

The myth and the reality of American history seldom come within shouting distance of one another. What the average American believes and what the historians would like him to believe about, let us say, the first winter in Plymouth, or the Boston Massacre, or Mrs. Bixby’s five sons, are two quite different things.

Occasionally, however, happy legend and hard fact match up almost exactly. An example is the judgment, shared alike by tenth-graders in Topeka and professors of history at Harvard, that the two best Presidents we have ever had—best in character, best in performance, best in influence—were George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

I have no argument with either the tenth-graders or the historians. With the former, I agree that Washington and Lincoln used the powers of the Presidency for high and patriotic ends; with the latter, I agree that they, along with Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, were the chief architects of the imposing office now at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. My purpose is simply to assemble the unimpeachable facts and common opinions about the presidential careers of these two great men, and thus to bring reality to the support of myth. In the course of this pleasant exercise there may also emerge certain interesting comparisons between Washington and Lincoln.

George Washington’s influence was felt upon the Presidency even before there was a Presidency. The temper of the years immediately after the Revolution was hostile to the claims of executive power, and Article II of the Constitution, which established an Executive both strong and independent, must have come as something of a surprise even to those men who favored the creation of a new national government. No single fact had more to do with the shaping of this splendid office in the Convention of 1787 than the universal assumption that Washington would be chosen as its first occupant—and chosen and chosen and chosen again until claimed by the grave. As Pierce Butler wrote to a relative in England, “ Entre nous , I do [not] believe they [the executive powers] would have been so great, had not many of the members cast their eyes toward General Washington as President; and shaped their ideas of the Powers to be given the President, by their opinions of his Virtue.”

The well-known fact of the General’s “Virtue” was also an influential force in the ratifying conventions throughout the new states. Many men who agreed with Patrick Henry’s warning that Article II was an “awful squint toward monarchy” were lulled into acquiescence by the comforting thought that the Cincinnatus of the West, no candidate for kingship, would be the man to put it into commission. Who else but his old commander could Alexander Hamilton have had in mind when he insisted in The Federalist upon the essential republicanism of the Presidency? Who else could be counted on so confidently to display “a due dependence on the people” and “a due responsibility” in this new and untried office?

The most meaningful judgment one can make of Washington’s eight years in the Presidency is that he fulfilled the hopes of the friends of the Constitution and spiked the fears of its critics.

The hopes of its friends were that the creation of an energetic Executive, independent of the legislature yet integrated into the constitutional structure, would introduce the one factor most sorrowfully missing from the equation of government under the Articles of Confederation: authority to execute the laws of the United States with dispatch and vigor. The government of the new republic was in desperate need of power, power to make policy and power to carry it through. Article I of the Constitution as interpreted by Madison, Ellsworth, and the other gentlemen of Congress proved to be the answer to the first half of this need. Article II as interpreted by Washington proved to be the answer to the second half.

He was certainly not a President in the image of the Roosevelts or Truman. When faced with a situation that called for decisive action, he took a painful amount of time making up his mind. For example, he sought the advice of both Hamilton and Jefferson even when he knew that they would only confuse and delay him with their antithetical counsels. He recognized that his decisions might very possibly set precedents for the long future, and this recognition gave an extra measure of gravity to his conduct of the office.

When Washington was ready, however, he acted confidently and with courage. The remarkable thing is how consistently he chose to act strongly rather than to abstain huffily, to advance rather than to retreat in his skirmishes with Congress over the uncharted territory left between them by the Constitution.

His major contributions to the concept of vigorous government under the leadership of a vigorous Executive were recorded in the field of foreign relations. The recognition of republican France, the proclamation of neutrality, the reception and dismissal of the French minister Genêt, the negotiation of Jay’s treaty, the use of personal agents, and the refusal to lay diplomatic correspondence before the House of Representatives were just a few of his actions that set precedents for all future Presidents to follow—or to be counted failures.

Critics of the Constitution had feared that the Executive outlined in Article II would prove too rich a blend of strength and independence, and that the government of the United States would go the way of most other popular governments in history—straight into tyranny. That it did not take this well-traveled road was the result of many factors: the political maturity of the people, the widespread spirit of liberty, the vigilance of the opposition, the excellence of the Constitution, and, not least important, the single-minded devotion of Washington to the principles of “republican government.” Two or three arbitrary acts could easily have aroused a popular demand for an amendment designed to cut the Presidency down to size. But Washington was simply not a man given to arbitrary action. His conduct was always eminently constitutional, and he repeatedly proved the point that Hamilton had labored in The Federalist : that executive power was wholly consistent “with the genius of republican government” and even essential to the sound conduct of such government.

It is not easy or indeed pleasant to imagine the fate of this great gamble in constitutional government if Washington had refused to accept his election to the Presidency. If he had stayed at Mount Vernon, as he wanted desperately to do, another man—probably John Adams or John Rutledge or John Jay or George Clinton—would have been the first President of the United States, and that could easily have meant the undoing of the Constitution. The plain fact is that we can go right down the list of all those who ever held high office in the United States and not discover a man so perfectly suited for the delicate task of finding the right balance of authority and restraint in the executive branch. Washington did the new republic a mighty service by fitting the Presidency carefully into the emerging pattern of American constitutionalism.

He did a great deal more than this, of course, for he put his own enormous prestige behind the new Constitution and thus made it acceptable to the American people. Men like Senator Maclay of Pennsylvania poked fun at the pomp and circumstance of “the Washington court,” but they could hardly deny that his grand tours through the states—for example, through New England in 1789 and the South in 1791—reinforced popular trust in the Constitution and stirred popular interest in the Presidency. On the first of these trips he fought a polite but dogged battle with vain Governor John Hancock of Massachusetts over one of the most ancient questions of applied political science: Who should call first on whom? The battle was fierce, and consumed most of his first two days in Boston; but a stubborn Washington, who insisted icily that Hancock make the first call, finally won a victory of profound symbolic importance for the authority of the new national government and, more to the point, for the prestige of its chief of state. The humbling of a governor in 1789 and the enforcement of the Federal laws in the Whiskey Rebellion of 1793 are two precedents that stood Dwight D. Eisenhower in good stead in the Little Rock crisis of 1957.

Washington’s great gifts to the Presidency and to the republic were dignity, power, and constitutionalism, and the greatest of these, surely, was constitutionalism. It has been said of Washington that he could have been a king but chose to be something more exalted: the first elected head of the first truly free government. In his inaugural address he made clear the solemnity of his mandate:

The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered, perhaps, as deeply , as finally , staked on the experiment intrusted to the hands of the American people.

It was Washington’s glory as President that he never broke faith with this solemn vision of the American mission. Well could Jefferson write in gratitude that he had conducted the councils of the new nation “through the birth of a government, new in its form and principles, until it had settled down into a quiet and orderly train,” chiefly by “scrupulously obeying the laws through the whole of his career, civil and military, of which the history of the world furnishes no other example.”

In the years between Washington’s departure in 1797 and Lincoln’s arrival in 1861, the Presidency became a subject of hot political and constitutional controversy. In one camp stood those who, following Andrew Jackson at a respectful distance, insisted upon a strong and independent Presidency as the steady focus of our constitutional system. In the other stood those who, falling back on the old Whig tradition, insisted upon a weak and dependent Presidency as the willing junior partner of a powerful Congress.

Lincoln came to the office with very few advance thoughts about the authority it embodied. He had never put himself publicly in either camp, and many of his critics were certain that his administration would prove too feeble for the awesome task at hand. Lincoln soon proved them grossly wrong in their judgments of his character and their fears for the Presidency. In sharp contrast to the vacillating Buchanan, who had denied his own authority to coerce a state to remain in the Union, Lincoln turned to military force as the final answer to secession. He was never greatly concerned about the forms his actions might take. It was enough for him to act—as Commander-in-Chief, supervisor of the faithful execution of the laws, and sole legatee of the unbounded grant of power we can read for ourselves in the first few words of Article II of the Constitution.

It became necessary for me to choose whether, using only the existing means, agencies, and processes which Congress had provided, I should let the Government fall at once into ruin or whether, availing myself of the broader powers conferred by the Constitution in cases of insurrection, I would make an effort to save it, with all its blessings, for the present age and for posterity.


The way in which Lincoln moved step by step to sweeping authority can be read in the timetable of his actions in the eleven weeks of mingled despair and hope between the fall of Fort Suinter and the meeting of a special session of Congress on July 4, 1861.

April 15: He calls out “the militia of the several states of the Union, to the aggregate number of seventy-five thousand,” in order to suppress the rebellion and enforce the laws. At the same time, he summons the two houses of Congress to convene in special session on July 4, thus giving himself a free hand to crush the rebellion swiftly without the vexatious presence of an unpredictable legislature.

April 19: He clamps a blockade on the ports of seven seceded states, a course of action hitherto regarded as contrary to both the Constitution and the law of nations except when the government is embroiled in a declared, foreign war. A week later the blockade is made complete.

April 20: He orders a total of nineteen vessels to be added immediately to the Navy “for purposes of public defense.”

April 20: He proceeds quietly, almost offhandedly, to take a number of extraordinary actions. He pledges the credit of the United States for a temporary loan of a quarter of a billion dollars; closes the Post Office to “treasonable correspondence”; authorizes persons “represented to him as being or about to engage in disloyal and treasonable practices to be arrested by special civil as well as military agencies and detained in military custody”; and directs Secretary of the Treasury Chase to advance $2,000,000 of unappropriated funds to three private citizens of New York who are absolutely unauthorized to receive them, “to be used by them in meeting such requisitions as should be directly consequent upon the military and naval measures necessary for the defense and support of the government.”

April 27: He empowers the commanding general of the United States Army to suspend the writ of habeas corpus along the line of communication between Philadelphia and Washington, this in the face of almost unanimous opinion that the constitutional clause regulating the writ is directed to Congress alone, and that the President has no share in this power of suspension.

May 3: He boldly invades the reserved area of congressional power by appealing for “42,034 volunteers to serve for the period of three years,” and by enlarging the Regular Army by 22,714 and Navy by 18,000.

July 2: He extends from Philadelphia to New York the line along which the writ of habeas corpus may be suspended.

These actions add up to the so-called “Lincoln dictatorship,” a pattern of presidential activity unparalleled in the history of the United States. By the time Congress had come together on July 4, Lincoln had set on foot a complete program—military, executive, legislative, and even judicial—to suppress the insurrection. When one thinks of the governments that have operated under the label of “dictatorship” in recent years, any such description of Lincoln’s weeks of unchecked power rings like blatant hyperbole. Yet it cannot be denied that he took many steps of an unprecedented, radical, and constitutionally questionable character.

Lincoln greeted the session of July 4 with a special message, a remarkable state paper in which he described most of the actions he had taken, rationalized the more doubtful of these by referring to “the war power of the government” (his phrase and evidently his idea), and invited congressional ratification. Lincoln himself apparently entertained no doubts about the legality of his calling out the militia and establishing the blockade, nor did he find it necessary to explain why he had chosen to postpone the emergency meeting of Congress to July 4. For his actions of a more legislative and therefore constitutionally more doubtful character, he gave a different justification:

These measures, whether strictly legal or not, were ventured upon, under what appeared to be a popular demand, and a public necessity; trusting then, as now, that Congress would readily ratify them. It is believed that nothing has been done beyond the Constitutional competency of Congress.

He asserted that the power to suspend the writ of habeas corpus could belong to him as well as to Congress, but he tactfully left the subsequent disposal of this matter to the legislators. The whole tenor of his message implied that the government of the United States, like all governments, possessed a final power of self-preservation, a power to be wielded primarily by the President of the United States. And this power extended even to the breaking of fundamental laws of the nation—if such a step were unavoidable.


Are all the laws, but one to go unexecuted, and the government itself go to pieces lest that one be violated? Even in such a case, would not the official oath be broken if the government should be overthrown, when it was believed that disregarding the single law would tend to preserve it?

In other words, in an instance of urgent necessity, an official of a constitutional state may act more faithfully to his oath of office if he breaks one law in order that the rest may endure. This was a powerful and unique plea for the doctrine of paramount necessity. It established no definite rule for the use of emergency power in this country, but it does stand as a fateful example of how a true democrat in power is likely to act if there is no other way for him to preserve the constitutional system he has sworn to defend.

Once Congress had reassembled in answer to the President’s call, it did what it could to cut him down from an Andrew Jackson to, at the very most, a James K. Polk. Lincoln, however, although always respectful of Congress, went forward resolutely on his powerdirected course, taking one extraordinary action after another on the basis of the “war power.” He had brought the office of the Presidency to a new plateau of power and prestige, and he kept it there to the end. His interpretation of his powers was stabilized at an exalted level, and it appears that he considered himself constitutionally empowered to do just about anything that the military situation demanded. “As Commander-in-Chief in time of war,” he told some visitors from Chicago, “I suppose I have a right to take any measure which may best subdue the enemy.” We need not look beyond the Emancipation Proclamation and the declaration of martial law in Indiana to learn what he meant by “any measure.”

On July 4, 1861, Lincoln had put the searching question, “Is there, in all republics, this inherent, and fatal weakness? Must a government, of necessity, be too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak to maintain its own existence?” By April 15, 1865, he had given, once and for all, the great answer of constitutionalism: It need not be either—not if conducted by a man who, paradoxically, can venerate the Constitution even as he dips into it deeply for extraordinary power.

To set up a comparison of two great Presidents like Washington and Lincoln is at best a rather futile business. There are, to be sure, a number of minor points one can make with conviction and some little profit. For example, no two men could have been more different in their methods of day-to-day administration, and no two men could have been more alike in the reliance they placed in trusted subordinates. It is certainly worth noting that the Cabinet of each of these outstanding Presidents ranks among the best three or four ever assembled. If Washington had his Hamilton, Jefferson, Knox, and Randolph, Lincoln had his Seward, Chase, Stanton, and Welles. Each of these skillful groups of lieutenants is a standing reproach to the popular assumption that strong Presidents have surrounded themselves with weak men and weak Presidents with strong men.

In the end, I think, there was one profound similarity, and likewise one profound dissimilarity, between the Presidencies of Washington and Lincoln. The similarity was essentially a question of style , for each was, in his own way, a pragmatic statesman who had little use for doctrine and much for the process of trial and error, and who was most successful in the Presidency when he played by ear. In this sense, both Washington and Lincoln were “characteristically American.” Each had principles in which he believed with something akin to childlike faith, but the principles were never permitted to harden into dogmas that might obstruct the hard choices that had to be made. Each accepted happily the ground rules of American constitutionalism, but within these rules he played the game with an eye for practical success rather than for doctrinal consistency. Each had virtually no precedents on which to fall back for aid and comfort—Lincoln because he was the first President to face decisions in a genuine crisis, Washington because he was the first President to face any decisions at all—and each set a whole array for later Presidents to follow gratefully. And both of them did this most effectively, I repeat, when they hardly knew what they were doing—except that in their respective circumstances they were doing what any sensible man could see just had to be done.


The most important dissimilarity between Washington and Lincoln was in the roles they played. Each was called upon by history to meet the crisis of his own age, and the crisis of 1789–97 was not at all like the crisis of 1861–65. Both proved themselves devoted friends of constitutional government, but they were forced to prove their friendship in different ways. We are grateful to Washington because, in a time of construction , he was scrupulous in honoring the letter and spirit of the Constitution. We are grateful to Lincoln because, in a time of dissolution , he honored the spirit of the Constitution by stretching the letter almost to its limits.

If Lincoln had been in Washington’s position, would he have been equally scrupulous? If Washington had been in Lincoln’s, would he have been equally bold? The answer to that double-barrelled question lies in the healthily pragmatic attitude toward the responsibilities of the presidential office that these uncommon men held in common, and the answer, surely, is a resounding “yes.” Each man met resolutely the challenge that history flung in his face, and each would have met the other’s no less resolutely. What more could we care to claim for our two greatest men, who were also, more than coincidentally, our two greatest Presidents?

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