Great Presidents and The National Idea

MONDAY is the holiday recognizing the accomplishments of the country's two greatest presidents. We honor Washington and Lincoln most for their contributions to the national idea. The United States, G.K. Chesterton wrote in ``What I Saw in America,'' is the only nation in the world founded on a political idea - one ``set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence. ... It enunciates that all men are equal in their claim to justice, that governments exist to give them justice, and that their authority is for that reason just.'' America's great idea insists upon individuals' intrinsic equality - which, Chesterton went on, ``is not some crude fairy tale about all men being equally tall or equally tricky....'' Equality's claim is ``an absolute of morals by which all men have a value invariable and indestructible and a dignity as intangible as death.''

For George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, the presidency was above all an instrumentality for advancing this national identity and purpose. Washington was certain of the idea's soundness, but full of doubts about its practical attainment. Washington made his greatest contributions as the prime architect of effective political institutions consistent with the national idea.

Lincoln's overriding goal, it's often remarked, was ``saving the Union.'' But for him ``the Union'' was first the intangible commitment to the national ideas as set forth in the Declaration, and only secondarily the tangible political federation. The Union could survive the fact of slavery, shameful though that was; but, Lincoln insisted, it could not survive if it countenanced the claim, as did Chief Justice Roger Taney in the Dred Scott case, that slavery could be squared with the claims of the Declaration.

In what was, I think, his greatest public address, made on June 26, 1857, Lincoln argued that, while the founders had obviously not secured equality, they had advanced it as the moral standard without which the US had no meaning. ``They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet, that they were about to confer it immediately upon them,'' Lincoln noted. ``They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and therefore constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of colors everywhere.''

The American president occupies a relatively weak institutional position under the separation of powers, sharing power with Congress in every area of governance. Nonetheless, when he articulates the founding ideals and links them persuasively to some current course of action, the president is able to draw upon an enormous resource for effective leadership. The most successful presidents have been those who have understood this keenly.

The most remembered presidential addresses have not so much dealt with policy as they have explored contemporary requirements of the national idea. Washington's Farewell Address, Lincoln's Second Inaugural, and Franklin Roosevelt's ``Four Freedoms'' speech are among the most notable examples. In the latter, which was his 1941 state of the union message, FDR argued that it was the United States's responsibility to help advance ``everywhere in the world'' four ``essential human freedoms'' - of expression and of religion, from want, and from fear - which form the core of our own claims as a nation.

Today, evocations of the national idea - as in President Bush's recent state of the union speech - grate on some ears, perhaps because they assume that the US has a special place and mission.

That view is no longer intellectually fashionable. Nonetheless, it is something most rank and file Americans still believe in. How else can we account for the extraordinary depth and breadth of public backing for US efforts in the Gulf? The oft-heard speculation that support would vanish as costs, human and material, mounted totally misread the source of the support and the readiness for sacrifice it entails.

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