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George Washington And Abraham Lincoln Essay, Research Paper

George Washington:

George Washington was commander in chief of the Continental army during the American Revolution and first president of the United States (1789-97).

Early Life and Career

Born in Westmoreland County, Va., on Feb. 22, 1732, George Washington was the eldest son of Augustine Washington and his second wife, Mary Ball Washington, who were prosperous Virginia gentry of English descent. George spent his early years on the family estate on Pope’s Creek along the Potomac River. His early education included the study of such subjects as mathematics, surveying, the classics, and “rules of civility.” His father died in 1743, and soon thereafter George went to live with his half brother Lawrence at Mount Vernon, Lawrence’s plantation on the Potomac. Lawrence, who became something of a substitute father for his brother, had married into the Fairfax family, prominent and influential Virginians who helped launch George’s career. An early ambition to go to sea had been effectively discouraged by George’s mother; instead, he turned to surveying, securing (1748) an appointment to survey Lord Fairfax’s lands in the Shenandoah Valley. He helped lay out the Virginia town of Belhaven (now Alexandria) in 1749 and was appointed surveyor for Culpeper County. George accompanied his brother to Barbados in an effort to cure Lawrence of tuberculosis, but Lawrence died in 1752, soon after the brothers returned. George ultimately inherited the Mount Vernon estate.

By 1753 the growing rivalry between the British and French over control of the Ohio Valley, soon to erupt into the French and Indian War (1754-63), created new opportunities for the ambitious young Washington. He first gained public notice when, as adjutant of one of Virginia’s four military districts, he was dispatched (October 1753) by Gov. Robert Dinwiddie on a fruitless mission to warn the French commander at Fort Le Boeuf against further encroachment on territory claimed by Britain. Washington’s diary account of the dangers and difficulties of his journey, published at Williamsburg on his return, may have helped win him his ensuing promotion to lieutenant colonel. Although only 22 years of age and lacking experience, he learned quickly, meeting the problems of recruitment, supply, and desertions with a combination of brashness and native ability that earned him the respect of his superiors.

French and Indian War

In April 1754, on his way to establish a post at the Forks of the Ohio (the current site of Pittsburgh), Washington learned that the French had already erected a fort there. Warned that the French were advancing, he quickly threw up fortifications at Great Meadows, Pa., aptly naming the entrenchment Fort Necessity, and marched to intercept advancing French troops. In the resulting skirmish the French commander the sieur de Jumonville was killed and most of his men were captured. Washington pulled his small force back into Fort Necessity, where he was overwhelmed (July 3) by the French in an all-day battle fought in a drenching rain. Surrounded by enemy troops, with his food supply almost exhausted and his dampened ammunition useless, Washington capitulated. Under the terms of the surrender signed that day, he was permitted to march his troops back to Williamsburg.

Discouraged by his defeat and angered by discrimination between British and colonial officers in rank and pay, he resigned his commission near the end of 1754. The next year, however, he volunteered to join British general Edward Braddock’s expedition against the French. When Braddock was ambushed by the French and their Indian allies on the Monongahela River, Washington, although seriously ill, tried to rally the Virginia troops. Whatever public criticism attended the debacle, Washington’s own military reputation was enhanced, and in 1755, at the age of 23, he was promoted to colonel and appointed commander in chief of the Virginia militia, with responsibility for defending the frontier. In 1758 he took an active part in Gen. John Forbes’s successful campaign against Fort Duquesne. From his correspondence during these years, Washington can be seen evolving from a brash, vain, and opinionated young officer, impatient with restraints and given to writing admonitory letters to his superiors, to a mature soldier with a grasp of administration and a firm understanding of how to deal effectively with civil authority.

Virginia Politician

Assured that the Virginia frontier was safe from French attack, Washington left the army in 1758 and returned to Mount Vernon, directing his attention toward restoring his neglected estate. He erected new buildings, refurnished the house, and experimented with new crops. With the support of an ever-growing circle of influential friends, he entered politics, serving (1759-74) in Virginia’s House of Burgesses. In January 1759 he married Martha Dandridge Custis, a wealthy and attractive young widow with two small children. It was to be a happy and satisfying marriage.

After 1769, Washington became a leader in Virginia’s opposition to Great Britain’s colonial policies. At first he hoped for reconciliation with Britain, although some British policies had touched him personally. Discrimination against colonial military officers had rankled deeply, and British land policies and restrictions on western expansion after 1763 had seriously hindered his plans for western land speculation. In addition, he shared the usual planter’s dilemma in being continually in debt to his London agents. As a delegate (1774-75) to the First and Second Continental Congress, Washington did not participate actively in the deliberations, but his presence was undoubtedly a stabilizing influence. In June 1775 he was Congress’s unanimous choice as commander in chief of the Continental forces.

American Revolution

Washington took command of the troops surrounding British-occupied Boston on July 3, devoting the next few months to training the undisciplined 14,000-man army and trying to secure urgently needed powder and other supplies. Early in March 1776, using cannon brought down from Ticonderoga by Henry Knox, Washington occupied Dorchester Heights, effectively commanding the city and forcing the British to evacuate on March 17. He then moved to defend New York City against the combined land and sea forces of Sir William Howe. In New York he committed a military blunder by occupying an untenable position in Brooklyn (see Long Island, Battle of), although he saved his army by skillfully retreating from Manhattan into Westchester County and through New Jersey into Pennsylvania. In the last months of 1776, desperately short of men and supplies, Washington almost despaired. He had lost New York City to the British; enlistment was almost up for a number of the troops, and others were deserting in droves; civilian morale was falling rapidly; and Congress, faced with the possibility of a British attack on Philadelphia, had withdrawn from the city.

Colonial morale was briefly revived by the capture of Trenton, N.J. (see Trenton, Battle of), a brilliantly conceived attack in which Washington crossed the Delaware River on Christmas night 1776 and surprised the predominantly Hessian garrison. Advancing to Princeton, N.J., he routed the British there on Jan. 3, 1777, but in September and October 1777 he suffered serious reverses in Pennsylvania–at Brandywine and Germantown. The major success of that year–the defeat (October 1777) of the British at Saratoga, N.Y.–had belonged not to Washington but to Benedict Arnold and Horatio Gates. The contrast between Washington’s record and Gates’s brilliant victory was one factor that led to the so-called Conway Cabal–an intrigue by some members of Congress and army officers to replace Washington with a more successful commander, probably Gates. Washington acted quickly, and the plan eventually collapsed due to lack of public support as well as to Washington’s overall superiority to his rivals.

After holding his bedraggled and dispirited army together during the difficult winter at Valley Forge, Washington learned that France had recognized American independence. With the aid of the Prussian Baron von Steuben and the French marquis de Lafayette, he concentrated on turning the army into a viable fighting force, and by spring he was ready to take the field again. In June 1778 he attacked the British near Monmouth Courthouse, N.J., on their withdrawal from Philadelphia to New York (see Monmouth, Battle of). Although American general Charles Lee’s lack of enterprise ruined Washington’s plan to strike a major blow at Sir Henry Clinton’s army at Monmouth, the commander in chief’s quick action on the field prevented an American defeat.

In 1780 the main theater of the war shifted to the south. Although the campaigns in Virginia and the Carolinas were conducted by other generals, including Nathanael Greene and Daniel Morgan, Washington was still responsible for the overall direction of the war. After the arrival of the French army in 1780 he concentrated on coordinating allied efforts and in 1781 launched, in cooperation with the comte de Rochambeau and the comte d’Estaing, the brilliantly planned and executed Yorktown Campaign against Charles Cornwallis, securing (Oct. 19, 1781) the American victory.

Washington had grown enormously in stature during the war. A man of unquestioned integrity, he began by accepting the advice of more experienced officers such as Gates and Charles Lee, but he quickly learned to trust his own judgment. He sometimes railed at Congress for its failure to supply troops and for the bungling fiscal measures that frustrated his efforts to secure adequate materiel. Gradually, however, he developed what was perhaps his greatest strength in a society suspicious of the military–his ability to deal effectively with civil authority. Whatever his private opinions, his relations with Congress and with the state governments were exemplary–despite the fact that his wartime powers sometimes amounted to dictatorial authority. On the battlefield Washington relied on a policy of trial and error, eventually becoming a master of improvisation. Often accused of being overly cautious, he could be bold when success seemed possible. He learned to use the short-term militia skillfully and to combine green troops with veterans to produce an efficient fighting force.

After the war Washington returned to Mount Vernon, which had declined in his absence. Although he became president of the Society of the Cincinnati, an organization of former Revolutionary War officers, he avoided involvement in Virginia politics. Preferring to concentrate on restoring Mount Vernon, he added a greenhouse, a mill, an icehouse, and new land to the estate. He experimented with crop rotation, bred hunting dogs and horses, investigated the development of Potomac River navigation, undertook various commercial ventures, and traveled (1784) west to examine his land holdings near the Ohio River. His diary notes a steady stream of visitors, native and foreign; Mount Vernon, like its owner, had already become a national institution.

In May 1787, Washington headed the Virginia delegation to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and was unanimously elected presiding officer. His presence lent prestige to the proceedings, and although he made few direct contributions, he generally supported the advocates of a strong central government. After the new Constitution was submitted to the states for ratification and became legally operative, he was unanimously elected president (1789).

The Presidency

Taking office (Apr. 30, 1789) in New York City, Washington acted carefully and deliberately, aware of the need to build an executive structure that could accommodate future presidents. Hoping to prevent sectionalism from dividing the new nation, he toured the New England states (1789) and the South (1791). An able administrator, he nevertheless failed to heal the widening breach between factions led by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. Because he supported many of Hamilton’s controversial fiscal policies–the assumption of state debts, the Bank of the United States, and the excise tax–Washington became the target of attacks by Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans.

Washington was reelected president in 1792, and the following year the most divisive crisis arising out of the personal and political conflicts within his cabinet occurred–over the issue of American neutrality during the war between England and France. Washington, whose policy of neutrality angered the pro-French Jeffersonians, was horrified by the excesses of the French Revolution and enraged by the tactics of Edmond Genet, the French minister in the United States, which amounted to foreign interference in American politics. Further, with an eye toward developing closer commercial ties with the British, the president agreed with the Hamiltonians on the need for peace with Great Britain. His acceptance of the 1794 Jay’s Treaty, which settled outstanding differences between the United States and Britain but which Democratic-Republicans viewed as an abject surrender to British demands, revived vituperation against the president, as did his vigorous upholding of the excise law during the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania.

Retirement and Assessment

By March 1797, when Washington left office, the country’s financial system was well established; the Indian threat east of the Mississippi had been largely eliminated; and Jay’s Treaty and Pinckney’s Treaty (1795) with Spain had enlarged U.S. territory and removed serious diplomatic difficulties. In spite of the animosities and conflicting opinions between Democratic-Republicans and members of the Hamiltonian Federalist party, the two groups were at least united in acceptance of the new federal government. Washington refused to run for a third term and, after a masterly Farewell Address in which he warned the United States against permanent alliances abroad, he went home to Mount Vernon. He was succeeded by his vice-president, Federalist John Adams.

Although Washington reluctantly accepted command of the army in 1798 when war with France seemed imminent, he did not assume an active role. He preferred to spend his last years in happy retirement at Mount Vernon. In mid-December, Washington contracted what was probably quinsy or acute laryngitis; he declined rapidly and died at his estate on Dec. 14, 1799.

Even during his lifetime, Washington loomed large in the national imagination. His role as a symbol of American virtue was enhanced after his death by Mason L. Weems, in an edition of whose Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington (c.1800) first appeared such legends as the story about the cherry tree. Later biographers of note included Washington Irving (5 vols., 1855-59) and Woodrow Wilson (1896). Washington’s own works have been published in various editions, including The Diaries of George Washington, edited by Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig (6 vols., 1976-79), and The Writings of George Washington … , 1745-1799, edited by John C. Fitzpatrick (39 vols., 1931-44).

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, guided his country through the most devastating experience in its national history–the Civil War. He is considered by many historians to have been the greatest American president.

Early Life

Lincoln was born on Feb. 12, 1809, in a log cabin in Hardin (now Larue) County, Ky. Indians had killed his grandfather, Lincoln wrote, “when he was laboring to open a farm in the forest” in 1786; this tragedy left his father, Thomas Lincoln, “a wandering laboring boy” who “grew up, literally [sic] without education.” Thomas, nevertheless, became a skilled carpenter and purchased three farms in Kentucky before the Lincolns left the state. Little is known about Lincoln’s mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln. Abraham had an older sister, Sarah, and a younger brother, Thomas, who died in infancy.

In 1816 the Lincolns moved to Indiana, “partly on account of slavery,” Abraham recalled, “but chiefly on account of difficulty in land titles in Ky.” Land ownership was more secure in Indiana because the Land Ordinance of 1785 provided for surveys by the federal government; moreover, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 forbade slavery there. Lincoln’s parents belonged to a faction of the Baptists that disapproved of slavery, and this affiliation may account for Abraham’s later statement that he was “naturally anti-slavery” and could not remember when he “did not so think, and feel.” Indiana was a “wild region, with many bears and other wild animals still in the woods.” The Lincolns’ life near Little Pigeon Creek, in Perry (now Spencer) County, was not easy. Lincoln “was raised to farm work” and recalled life in this “unbroken forest” as a fight “with trees and logs and grubs.” “There was absolutely nothing to excite ambition for education,” Lincoln was later to recall; he attended “some schools, so called,” but for less than a year altogether. “Still, somehow,” he remembered, “I could read, write, and cipher to the Rule of Three; but that was all.” Lincoln’s mother died in 1818, and the following year his father married a Kentucky widow, Sarah Bush Johnston. She “proved a good and kind mother.” In later years Lincoln could fondly and poetically recall memories of his “childhood home.” In 1828 he was able to make a flatboat trip to New Orleans. His sister died in childbirth the same year.

In 1830 the Lincolns left Indiana for Illinois. Abraham made a second flatboat trip to New Orleans, and in 1831 he left home for New Salem, in Sangamon County near Springfield. The separation may have been made easier by Lincoln’s estrangement from his father, of whom he spoke little in his mature life. In New Salem, Lincoln tried various occupations and served briefly in the Black Hawk War (1832). This military interlude was uneventful except for the fact that he was elected captain of his volunteer company, a distinction that gave him “much satisfaction.” It opened new avenues for his life.

Illinois Legislator

Lincoln ran unsuccessfully for the Illinois legislature in 1832. Two years later he was elected to the lower house for the first of four successive terms (until 1841) as a Whig. His membership in the Whig party was natural. Lincoln’s father was a Whig, and the party’s ambitious program of national economic development was the perfect solution to the problems Lincoln had seen in his rural, hardscrabble Indiana past. His first platform (1832) announced that “Time and experience… verified…that the poorest and most thinly populated countries would be greatly benefitted by the opening of good roads, and in the clearing of navigable streams….There cannot justly be any objection to having rail roads and canals.” As a Whig, Lincoln supported the Second Bank of the United States, the Illinois State Bank, government-sponsored internal improvements (roads, canals, railroads, harbors), and protective tariffs. His Whig vision of the West, derived from Henry Clay, was not at all pastoral. Unlike most successful American politicians, Lincoln was unsentimental about agriculture, calling farmers in 1859 “neither better nor worse than any other people.” He remained conscious of his humble origins and was therefore sympathetic to labor as “prior to, and independent of, capital.” He bore no antagonism to capital, however, admiring the American system of economic opportunity in which the “man who labored for another last year, this year labors for himself, and next year he will hire others to labor for him.” Slavery was the opposite of opportunity and mobility, and Lincoln stated his political opposition to it as early as 1837.

Lawyer and U.S. Representative

Encouraged by Whig legislator John Todd Stuart, Lincoln became a lawyer in 1836, and in 1837 he moved to Springfield, where he became Stuart’s law partner. With a succession of partners, including Stephen T. Logan and William H. Herndon, Lincoln built a successful practice. Lincoln courted Mary Todd, a Kentuckian of much more genteel origins than he. After a brief postponement of their engagement, which plummeted Lincoln into a deep spell of melancholy, they were married on Nov. 4, 1842. They had four sons: Robert Todd (1843-1926), Edward Baker (1846-50), William Wallace (1850-62), and Thomas “Tad” (1853-71). Mary Todd Lincoln was a Presbyterian, but her husband was never a church member.

Lincoln served one term (1847-49) as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, where he opposed the Mexican War–Whigs did everywhere–as unnecessary and unconstitutional. This opposition was not a function of internationalist sympathy for Mexico (Lincoln thought the war inevitable) but of feeling that the Democratic president, James Polk, had violated the Constitution. Lincoln had been indifferent about the annexation of Texas, already a slave territory, but he opposed any expansion that would allow slavery into new areas; hence, he supported the Wilmot Proviso, which would have barred slavery from any territory gained as a result of the Mexican War. He did not run for Congress again, returning instead to Springfield and the law.

The Slavery Issue and the Lincoln-Douglas Debates

Lincoln “was losing interest in politics” when the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed by Congress in 1854. This legislation opened lands previously closed to slavery to the possibility of its spread by local option (popular sovereignty); Lincoln viewed the provisions of the act as immoral. Although he was not an abolitionist and thought slavery unassailably protected by the Constitution in states where it already existed, Lincoln also thought that America’s founders had put slavery on the way to “ultimate extinction”by preventing its spread to new territories. He saw this act, which had been sponsored by Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas, as a new and alarming development.

Lincoln vied for the U.S. Senate in 1855 but eventually threw his support to Lyman Trumbull. In 1856 he joined the newly formed Republican party, and two years later he campaigned for the Senate against Douglas. In his speech at Springfield in acceptance of the Republican senatorial nomination (June 16, 1858) Lincoln suggested that Douglas, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, and Democratic presidents Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan had conspired to nationalize slavery. In the same speech he expressed the view that the nation would become either all slave or all free: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” The underdog in the senatorial campaign, Lincoln wished to share Douglas’s fame by appearing with him in debates. Douglas agreed to seven debates: in Ottawa, Freeport, Jonesboro, Charleston, Galesburg, Quincy, and Alton, Ill. Lincoln knew that Douglas–now fighting the Democratic Buchanan administration over the constitution to be adopted by Kansas–had alienated his Southern support; and he feared Douglas’s new appeal to eastern Republicans now that Douglas was battling the South. Lincoln’s strategy, therefore, was to stress the gulf of principle that separated Republican opposition to slavery as a moral wrong from the moral indifference of the Democrats, embodied in legislation allowing popular sovereignty to decide the fate of each territory. Douglas, Lincoln insisted, did not care whether slavery was “voted up or voted down.” By his vigorous showing against the famous Douglas, Lincoln won the debates and his first considerable national fame. He did not win the Senate seat, however; the Illinois legislature, dominated by Democratic holdovers in the upper house, elected Douglas.

Election to the Presidency

In February 1860, Lincoln made his first major political appearance in the Northeast when he addressed a rally at the Cooper Union in New York. He was now sufficiently well known to be a presidential candidate. At the Republican national convention in Chicago in May, William H. Seward was the leading candidate. Seward, however, had qualities that made him undesirable in the critical states the Republicans had lost in 1856: Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois, and New Jersey. As a result Lincoln won the nomination by being the second choice of the majority.

He went on to win the presidential election, defeating the Northern Democrat Douglas, the Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge, and the Constitutional Union candidate John Bell. Lincoln selected a strong cabinet that included all of his major rivals for the Republican nomination: Seward as secretary of state, Salmon P. Chase as secretary of the treasury, and Edward Bates as attorney general.

By the time of Lincoln’s inauguration in March 1861, seven states had seceded from the Union. His conciliatory inaugural address had no effect on the South, and, against the advice of a majority of his cabinet, Lincoln decided to send provisions to Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. The fort was a symbol of federal authority–conspicuous in the state that had led secession, South Carolina–and it would soon have had to be evacuated for lack of supplies. On Apr. 12, 1861, South Carolina fired on the fort, and the Civil War began.

The Civil War

As a commander in chief Lincoln was soon noted for vigorous measures, sometimes at odds with the Constitution and often at odds with the ideas of his military commanders. After a period of initial support and enthusiasm for George B. McClellan, Lincoln’s conflicts with that Democratic general helped to turn the latter into his presidential rival in 1864. Famed for his clemency for court-martialed soldiers, Lincoln nevertheless took a realistic view of war as best prosecuted by killing the enemy. Above all, he always sought a general, no matter what his politics, who would fight. He found such a general in Ulysses S. Grant, to whom he gave overall command in 1864. Thereafter, Lincoln took a less direct role in military planning, but his interest never wavered, and he died with a copy of Gen. William Sherman’s orders for the March to the Sea in his pocket.

Politics vied with war as Lincoln’s major preoccupation in the presidency. The war required the deployment of huge numbers of men and quantities of materiel; for administrative assistance, therefore, Lincoln turned to the only large organization available for his use, the Republican party. With some rare but important exceptions (for example, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton), Republicans received the bulk of the civilian appointments from the cabinet to the local post offices. Lincoln tried throughout the war to keep the Republican party together and never consistently favored one faction in the party over another. Military appointments were divided between Republicans and Democrats.

Democrats accused Lincoln of being a tyrant because he proscribed civil liberties. For example, he suspended the writ of habeas corpus in some areas as early as Apr. 27, 1861, and throughout the nation on Sept. 24, 1862, and the administration made over 13,000 arbitrary arrests. On the other hand, Lincoln tolerated virulent criticism from the press and politicians, often restrained his commanders from overzealous arrests, and showed no real tendencies toward becoming a dictator. There was never a hint that Lincoln might postpone the election of 1864, although he feared in August of that year that he would surely lose to McClellan. Democrats exaggerated Lincoln’s suppression of civil liberties, in part because wartime prosperity robbed them of economic issues and in part because Lincoln handled the slavery issue so skillfully.

The Constitution protected slavery in peace, but in war, Lincoln came to believe, the commander in chief could abolish slavery as a military necessity. The preliminary Emancipation Proclamation of Sept. 22, 1862, bore this military justification, as did all of Lincoln’s racial measures, including especially his decision in the final proclamation of Jan. 1, 1863, to accept blacks in the army. By 1864, Democrats and Republicans differed clearly in their platforms on the race issue: Lincoln’s endorsed the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution abolishing slavery, whereas McClellan’s pledged to return to the South the rights it had had in 1860.

Lincoln’s victory in that election thus changed the racial future of the United States. It also agitated Southern-sympathizer and Negrophobe John Wilkes Booth (see Booth, family), who began to conspire first to abduct Lincoln and later to kill him. On Apr. 14, 1865, five days after Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House, Lincoln attended a performance of Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre in Washington. There Booth entered the presidential box and shot Lincoln. The next morning at 7:22 Lincoln died.

Lincoln’s achievements–saving the Union and freeing the slaves–and his martyrdom just at the war’s end assured his lasting fame. No small contribution was made by his extraordinary eloquence–exemplified in the Gettysburg Address (Nov. 19, 1863), in which he defined the war as a rededication to the egalitarian ideals of the Declaration of Independence, and in his second inaugural address (Mar. 4, 1865), in which he urged “malice toward none” and “charity for all” in the peace to come.


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