Lincoln and Washington and the Value of Education

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When it comes to national holidays, it's hard to find one that garners less respect and reflection than Presidents Day. There's no one to mourn as we do for Martin Luther King Day, Memorial Day and Veterans Day; nothing to celebrate like Independence Day; no inherent controversy such as the oft-embattled Columbus Day; no traditional family reunions similar to Thanksgiving and Christmas; nor a symbolic change of seasonal status as signified by New Year's Day, Memorial Day and Labor Day. Yes, technically we're commemorating the birthdays of Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, but in the grand scheme of things the founders of our nation get the short end of the stick. For most of us, it's just a day off.

To say that this is an injustice is a massive understatement. Washington was the victorious commander in chief during the Revolutionary War, a strong advocate of the Declaration of Independence and the presiding delegate for the Constitutional Convention. Moreover, by stepping down after two terms as president (before term limits were established), he set the precedent that ensured the United States would be governed by a leader rather than ruled by a dictator.

Though Lincoln's time in office was tragically cut short, his accomplishments are no less impressive. The 16th president persevered and led the nation through the Civil War, somehow managing to unite the frayed Union. His words--especially the Gettysburg Address--endure as some of the most stirring in history, and it was his Emancipation Proclamation that set into motion the outlawing of slavery and the eventual enactment of the Thirteenth Amendment, which made it official. In William J. Ridings, Jr. and Stuart B. McIver's book, "Rating the President," Lincoln ranked first (Washington came in third, after Franklin Delano Roosevelt).

While acknowledging these acts of greatness, I'd like to note a lesser-known priority of these great men and list the top-five examples of Washington and Lincoln's commitment to education.

1) "The best means of forming a manly, virtuous, and happy people will be found in the right education of youth. Without this foundation, every other means, in my opinion, must fail." -George Washington

During his presidency, Washington was one of the foremost advocates of education. Believing that his role was not only to govern, but to lay the foundation for a burdening nation, he took pains to emphasize its importance in several of his speeches. The first president's reasoning was simple: Without a proper education, the country would topple under the next generation of American leaders.

2) "Upon the subject of education...I can only say that I view it as the most important subject which we as a people may be engaged in. That everyone may receive at least a moderate education appears to be an objective of vital importance." -Abraham Lincoln

In his very first political announcement declaring his candidacy in the 1832 election for the Illinois General Assembly (he finished eighth in a 13-man field), the 23-year-old Lincoln said that the people of the United States should place the highest priority in providing education for all. Perhaps he was influenced by his own struggles; growing up in poverty, Lincoln was forced to work to support his family and received only a scant education, and later taught himself law to pass the bar.

3) "I have heretofore proposed to the consideration of Congress, the expediency of establishing a National University; and also a Military Academy. ...a primary object of such a National Institution should be, the education of our Youth in the science of Government. In a Republic, what species of knowledge can be equally important? And what duty, more pressing on its Legislature, than to patronize a plan for communicating it to those, who are to be the future guardians of the liberties of the Country?" -George Washington

Three years before his death he laid out his vision of building a national university in his final annual presidential address in 1796. Historians Scott A. Cook and William Earle Klay write that Washington believed that "education could help solve problems ranging from illiteracy to prejudice to poverty, and hoped to implement free public elementary and secondary education, and free college education for specialized training." Though his vision was unfulfilled during his lifetime, in 1802 Congress established the U.S. Military Academy, AKA West Point, the first of five national military academies.

4) "And be it further enacted, That all moneys derived from the sale of the lands aforesaid by the States to which the lands are apportioned ...to the endowment, support, and maintenance of...the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes." -Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862

A lasting legacy of Lincoln's presidency is the Morrill Act, which he supported and signed into law. The legislation allocated 30,000 acres of federal land to the states provided it would be sold to fund colleges teaching agricultural and mechanical arts. Sixty nine colleges emerged from the Morrill Act, including Cornell University, the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

5) "I give and bequeath in perpetuity the fifty shares which I hold in the Potomac Company...towards the endowment of a UNIVERSITY to be established within the limits of the District of Columbia, under the auspices of the General Government." -Last Will and Testament of George Washington

Washington's emphasis on education was not simply political rhetoric, as demonstrated repeatedly by his posthumous plans for his estate. In addition to the above passage, he also required his executors to bequeath funds to the Liberty-Hall Academy, later renamed Washington and Lee University. His last wishes included instructions for his estate to donate $4,000 toward "instituting a school in the Town of Alexandria for the purpose of educating orphan children." Finally, Washington reiterated that it was "a source of serious regret with me" that he was unable to establish a national university in his lifetime, and urged the effort to continue after his death.

It serves as an important lesson to us that Washington and Lincoln, the most influential presidents in U.S. history, put such a premium on education. Even as their presidencies were consumed by matters crucial to the survival of the country--declaring independence from the British Empire and the resulting war; the drafting of the Constitution; the decision to end slavery; and the holding together of a fractured union--they understood the value of education.

Today, more than 150 and 200 years after Lincoln and Washington's respective terms, these struggles have long ago been addressed. Isn't it about time that we honor them by fulfilling their visions for education, as well?

Which of Washington and Lincoln's accomplishments will you celebrate on President's Day?