We usually don’t think of Lincoln and Washington as being similar, even though the two men are usually number one and number two among America’s most admired Presidents. Indeed, there is much dissimilarity.
Washington lived well throughout his life. He was born into a well-to-do family and later became rich. Lincoln’s family was poor. For years he worked as a manual laborer. He did not become well-off until he became established as a lawyer in Springfield.
Washington had good connections with Virginia’s aristocracy; Lincoln’s family was obscure and undistinguished.
Washington had extensive experience in the military, and advanced to the rank of general. Lincoln’s military experience was limited to a few weeks as the captain of a regiment of volunteers in the Black Hawk War.
Washington was a handsome man, majestic in his bearing. Few ever used the words “handsome” or “majestic” to describe Lincoln.
Both were tall men for their times: Washington 6’3” and Lincoln 6’4.”
Both married women who were short. Mary Todd Lincoln and Martha Dandridge Washington were about five feet tall, and came up only to the chests of their husbands.
Both their wives came from prominent, wealthy families. At the time of their courtship, Washington’s wife-to-be was said to be the richest widow in America.
Both fought in Indian wars.
Both were athletic—-excellent wrestlers and superb horsemen.
Both lacked formal schooling. Washington received none at all; he was tutored at home. Lincoln had about one year’s schooling.
Both were skilled frontiersmen.
Both became surveyors.
Both were inventive men of a scientific temperament. Lincoln got a patent for an invention to lift ships off shoals. Washington was an avid reader of agricultural manuals, and conducted a controlled experiment, planting various grains at the same depth in different soils. He also invented a plow that automatically dropped seeds in furrows.
Both men copied from books to aid their memory.
Both had melancholy personalities. Lincoln suffered from bouts of depression, experienced two nervous breakdowns, and had dark premonitions and dreams. Washington feared an early death like his father and brother, both of whom had died young. According to Jefferson, Washington generally was “inclined to gloomy apprehensions.”
Both maintained close friendships with wild-living men whose reputations and actions contrasted sharply with their own reputations and actions. Washington’s friend was Gouverneur Morris and Lincoln’s was Ward Lamon.
Both were known for having volcanic tempers, and for their ability to control them.
Both were cautious with their words. For example, Washington said virtually nothing in public during the Constitutional Convention. Lincoln was an accomplished story-teller, but when it came to disclosing his innermost thoughts, a friend called him “the most close-mouthed man” he had ever known.”
Both considered themselves to be “harmonizers” of conflict.
Both wrote great letters.
Both possessed the ability to predict future events. Unlike Jefferson, Washington was pessimistic about the outcome of revolutionary forces then taking place in France. He predicted that they would lead to “a crisis of sad confusion” and “an entire change in the French system.” What actually occurred was the Reign of Terror, followed by Napoleon’s dictatorship. Washington vigorously opposed a scheme to raise an army of Americans that would liberate Louisiana from Spain and create an independent nation under the control of the French. Washington foresaw that new nations in the West with foreign connections would break up the continent and threaten the United States. (See James Thomas Flexner, Washington: The Indispensable Man. Boston: Back Bay/Little, Brown & Co. 1974, pp. 287, 288) As for Lincoln, his best-known example of forward-thinking is the memorable “House Divided” speech in which he predicted that the United States would eventually cease to become half-slave/half-free and become all one or all the other.
Both loved the theater.
Both loved reading.
Both wrote poetry.
Both attended church services, read the Bible, and prayed; but neither was a communicant of any denomination.
Both were ambitious in the extreme.
Both were skillful at dealing with intrigue, and putting down plots by rivals and subordinates. Washington had to deal with General Horatio Gates, who became known as the hero of the battle of Saratoga. Gates bypassed his commander-in-chief and for a time communicated directly with Congress. Washington patiently outmaneuvered him; Gates later suffered a disgraceful defeat at Camden, S.C. Lincoln had to be on the defensive constantly–with Secretary of State Seward (who wanted to act like a prime minister), with General McClellan (who was openly insubordinate) and with Secretary of the Treasury Chase (who wanted to be President). Lincoln turned Seward into a confidant, he replaced McClellan and later defeated him for President, and appointed Chase to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Both were the objects of vicious criticism.
Both suffered numerous defeats and setbacks. During the Revolutionary War, Washington lost more battles than he won, but was victorious in the final one. Lincoln’s setbacks were so frequent and well-known that they have become a cherished part of American lore.
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