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Washington and Lincoln showed us how to handle the worst of times

On Presidents Day, the United States honors George Washington primarily for leading the Americans' revolt from British governance and becoming our first elected federal executive, while honoring Abraham Lincoln mainly for preserving the union of ...

Michael R. Rosmann, Ph.D.
Michael R. Rosmann, Ph.D., FarmersÕ Forum columnist

On Presidents Day, the United States honors George Washington primarily for leading the Americans' revolt from British governance and becoming our first elected federal executive, while honoring Abraham Lincoln mainly for preserving the union of states and outlawing slavery. They accomplished much more than leading our country through some of its most chaotic times.

These past presidents also modeled personal behaviors everyone can learn from to manage our behaviors during difficult times. They demonstrated capacity to endure extreme adversity as well as taking calculated risks and courage to do what is right even while facing endangerment to their lives.

Their behaviors are similar to the personality traits of successful farmers that Shrapnel and Davie (2001) found in 60 Australian farmers they assessed, and that Willock and her colleagues (1998) measured in 252 farmers (242 men and 10 women) in Scotland: conscientiousness about working hard, confidence in personal decisions that include taking personal risks, and willingness to persist alone during challenging times.

George Washington and Abraham Lincoln both had farming roots. However, only Washington managed a farm throughout his life, though often in absentia.

Lincoln was likely unsuited for the robust physical demands of farming, despite working until age 21 on his family's farm in Indiana, because he probably had a genetic disorder such as Marfan's Syndrome or Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia that contributed to his gaunt frame, long bones and propensity toward depressive disorder. Proposed exhumation of his remains to examine his DNA several years ago was not undertaken because it was unclear if useful information could be extracted.

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Regardless, or perhaps because, of their agrarian backgrounds, as well as their genetic makeup and psychological traits, both presidents demonstrated how they managed themselves with fortitude and dignity when facing extreme challenges.

Washington inspired the colonial residents of the territories that eventually became our country's 13 original states while struggling for independence from England. He is admired for crossing the Delaware River with troops on Christmas Day 1776 and capturing hired Hessian mercenaries.

During two additional crossings of the Delaware River that winter despite rapidly-flowing chunks of ice which threatened to upset their vessels, Washington's troops captured English soldiers, weapons, ammunition and many other supplies.

These unexpected military maneuvers regained the momentum of the Continental Army and reestablished morale in a force of troops that was decimated by illness, cold weather and lack of shelter, food and military provisions. By mid-February 1777 the British forces abandoned Philadelphia and the Continental Army under Washington's leadership retook the entire region.

Another harsh winter during 1777-78 again tested the resolve and courage of Washington and his militia when they camped at Valley Forge, Pa. Many of the soldiers' wives and children joined his rag-tag army.

Washington summoned his wife, Martha, and soldiers' families to bring what food and garments they could sequester because the newly established Continental Congress couldn't respond sufficiently to Washington's requests. These endeavors brought loved ones who bolstered morale, food and other supplies, and manufactured shoes and sewed clothes for the ill-equipped militia.

When France announced that it was joining the war on the American side, hope surged, but it was the maintenance of Washington's revolutionary army through the harshest of conditions that generated the faith of his troops, the Continental Congress, and the general populace in the cause for independence.

Ultimate victory came several years later, and only after additional tests of General Washington's courage, but now supplemented by an enthusiastic federal governing body, several foreign allies, and North American residents who rallied to establish a new country.

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In the 1860s, President Lincoln was thrust into another almost impossible situation involving the welfare of our country. He was elected president of a divided nation with a large region that insisted on the rights of states to govern themselves and which included the practice of slavery if they wanted it, versus another region opposed to these policies.

The Civil War that followed cost more American lives than any other conflict in which the U.S. has been involved. When the outcome of the war became apparent, Mr. Lincoln's mercy toward the rebel states and his affirmation of equal rights for everyone under the established Constitution set a tone of reconciliation that probably contributed to his assassination.

Both presidents established precedents that serve our country well today. Importantly, they demonstrated recognition that we all have something to contribute to the well-being of our democratic way of life: persistence to pursue causes that benefit everyone despite personal threats, willingness to protect everyone regardless of their social status and hope for the future.

Our first and 16th presidents' greatest achievements were not military or political victories,but their personal fortitude and humility. Neither was perfect, but both were guided by their agrarian upbringings, convictions developed through hardship and their deep spiritual beliefs.

Everyone, whether in the U.S. or elsewhere, can learn from their examples.

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