Closer Readings Commentary

George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and the Presidents' Day holiday

Kimmel & Forster, Columbia's Noblest Sons
Photo caption

Kimmel & Forster, Columbia's Noblest Sons, c. 1865.

Courtesy Library of Congress Division of Prints and Photographs, Washington, D.C.

Between the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (February 12) and George Washington (February 22), our commercial republic* has come to celebrate a national holiday unofficially called “President’s Day” (February 16), which generically honors all the presidents. Washington and Lincoln stand out as unrivaled figures in American history. Their importance is reflected in the large number of lessons about them in our collection.

In this special post we highlight these lessons as well as new resources on five other of our notable chief executives.

A President’s Vision

First up and brand new from the Texas Humanities Council, Humanities Texas, is A President’s Vision. This is an attractive set of  U.S. history resources that examines the aspirations of seven notable U.S. presidents through the programs and initiatives that advanced each man’s vision. The centerpiece of the program is a series of seven digital interactive posters examining the leadership and policies that shaped the presidencies of Washington and Lincoln along with those of Thomas Jefferson, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Baines Johnson, and Ronald Reagan.

These engaging posters are accompanied by downloadable worksheets. Students start by examining the poster, asking themselves what they already know about the president and what they have learned from the poster. Next, they engage in a close analysis of the poster images, examining the relationship between image and factual information. Finally, students perform a close reading of an excerpt from an important primary presidential document and answer a series of questions, requiring them to demonstrate an understanding of what they read and to synthesize what they have learned. These resources are aligned with the Texas State Standards and they appear to align with the Common Core, as well.

For anyone who wants to learn more about 20th-century presidents, Ken Burns The Roosevelts and the American Experience series The Presidents are highly recommended.

George Washington

EDSITEment has a rich array of lesson plans on Washington, beginning with his earliest exploits as a solider and general. What Made George Washington a Good Military Leader? focuses on the military and political virtues that emerged during Washington's long service to his country in the French and Indian Wars and the  Revolution. Washington lost many battles but won the war. His ability to turn a military defeat into inspiring lessons for his troops made men follow him into battle. When he laid down his command of the army at the peak of his success and retired to his beloved Mt. Vernon, he astonished America and the whole European world.

Washington presided over the Constitutional Convention. The men who drafted the Constitution had his honorable example before them as they drafted Article Two, which sets forth the powers and responsibilities of the office of presidency. His support for the document helped secure passage in the state ratifying conventions. With some misgivings about the costs to his peace of mind and reputation, yet compelled by his sense of duty, Washington agreed to serve as president. His eight years in office set the precedent for all future occupants.

Abraham Lincoln

Like many ambitious young men before him, Abraham Lincoln began his political career with praise for George Washington. Yet after one unsatisfying term in Congress he return to Illinois to become a successful lawyer. Passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1852) altered the political balance between free and slave states and drove him from his comfortable and lucrative practice back into national politics. In Abraham Lincoln, the 1860 Election, and the Future of American Slavery, students can examine the arguments Lincoln made to justify his claim to lead the Union as president.

The decision-making process that precipitated the Civil War is a fascinating subject and the focus of Lincoln Goes to War. In this lesson, students examine the deliberations within the Lincoln administration that led to the defense of Fort Sumter from Confederate attack in April 1861.

While armies clashed on battlefields from Pennsylvania to Louisiana, partisan politics continued in Washington, D.C. Congress—as well as the nation at large—hotly debated issues related to the president's handling of the war. Abraham Lincoln and Wartime Politics examines the controversies arising from Lincoln’s role as a wartime president and asks students to argue whether he deserved a second term.

Students can examine the result that the stresses and strains of this conflict had on Lincoln by examining Alexander Gardner’s photograph of the president, taken a few months before his assassination. Gardner’s famous photograph is part of the EDSITEment lesson, Picture Lincoln, which is built around the rich significance of this image.

A Word Fitly Spoken: Abraham Lincoln on Union explores this rich vein of political reflections on the subject of American national union. By examining Lincoln's three most famous speeches: the Gettysburg Address; the First and Second Inaugural Addresses; and a little-known fragment on the Constitution, union, and liberty, students trace what these documents say regarding the importance of the Union for the future of republican self-government.

*The idea of a modern commercial republic—large, dynamic, and liberal—as being superior to the ancient military republics of Greece and Rome was first argued by Montesquieu in the Spirit of the Laws. This argument was further supported by David Hume, elaborated by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations, and underlies the arguments in favor of the U.S. Constitution in the Federalist Papers.