Why Presidents' Day?

Perhaps one reason Presidents' Day is now just another holiday for store sales is that some scholars and media are finding flaws in the giants of American democracy: Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln.

Jefferson, in particular, has been thrown off a pedestal by media depictions of him. The latest one is a TV movie about his liaison with a slave. And he's been described as a hypocrite on Native Americans - admiring them yet complicit in their demise.

Washington, while publicly opposed to slavery, owned slaves till the end of his life (though his will freed them on his wife's death). Lincoln is criticized for not freeing the slaves until the Civil War forced his hand.

While unearthing more facts about these men is welcome, judging them solely on today's standards is sometimes dubious. They lived during times of different values, when people were not as easily held to account for contradictory views. They helped bring about the very progress in thought that now allows us to judge them so harshly (much like a child judging a flawed parent).

We should be grateful these men surmounted those contradictions enough to exercise remarkable leadership and give voice to timeless thoughts. Who would want to erase these words from the Declaration of Independence - "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal" - because Jefferson didn't live up to them totally?

Great truths and great actions don't always come wrapped in perfect packages. At the least, Presidents' Day (or Washington's Birthday) can celebrate the gifts given us by these men.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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