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Our Two Greatest Presidents
Without doubt they were Washington, who walked carefully within the Constitution, and Lincoln, who stretched it as far as he dared
February 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 2
The most important dissimilarity between Washington and Lincoln was in the roles they played. Each was called upon by history to meet the crisis of his own age, and the crisis of 1789–97 was not at all like the crisis of 1861–65. Both proved themselves devoted friends of constitutional government, but they were forced to prove their friendship in different ways. We are grateful to Washington because, in a time of construction , he was scrupulous in honoring the letter and spirit of the Constitution. We are grateful to Lincoln because, in a time of dissolution , he honored the spirit of the Constitution by stretching the letter almost to its limits.
If Lincoln had been in Washington’s position, would he have been equally scrupulous? If Washington had been in Lincoln’s, would he have been equally bold? The answer to that double-barrelled question lies in the healthily pragmatic attitude toward the responsibilities of the presidential office that these uncommon men held in common, and the answer, surely, is a resounding “yes.” Each man met resolutely the challenge that history flung in his face, and each would have met the other’s no less resolutely. What more could we care to claim for our two greatest men, who were also, more than coincidentally, our two greatest Presidents?