Presidents' Day shows how time can change legacies. Just look at Washington and Lincoln.


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By Ethan Sacks

Americans generally believe that this truth is self-evident: George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were presidents who gained their place in monuments and in the currency through exemplary leadership that united the country.

This reverence is celebrated every year on Presidents' Day – a national celebration in one form or another since President Rutherford B. Hayes signed a 1879 law instituting a federal holiday on February 22, anniversary of the birth of Washington.

This reverence seems now picturesque, a phenomenon relegated beyond reality when one perceived wigs in powder or hats of pipes of furnaces.

A closer look at history shows, however, that no president has managed to leave his post without alienating a large part of the population. The partisan quarrel is an American tradition since the flag counted 13 stars, well before 140 character tweets.

"We watch these guys without rancor, but Washington was bitterly denounced during his presidency and the language used against Lincoln makes the remarks against Trump very clear," Eric Foner, a professor emeritus of history at NBC News, told NBC News. Columbia University DeWitt Clinton.

"The partisan bitterness we see today is not unprecedented."

From left to right, President Donald Trump, First Lady Melania Trump, former President Barack Obama, ex-First Lady Michelle Obama, former President Bill Clinton, the former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former President Jimmy Carter and ex-First Lady Rosalynn Carter attend the funeral of former President George HW Bush at the Washington National Cathedral on December 5, 2018.Alex Brandon / Pool via the Getty Images file

The story suggests that with time and perspective, one or more recent presidents might end up, if they were not engraved on Mount Rushmore, at least mentioned in the same breath than those immortalized in granite.

And, aside from political biases, historians point out that it is difficult to determine which presidents will go down in history as great, because the real effects of many of their policies and decisions are unclear before .

"Harry Truman left his post with a historically low rating, but most historians now rank him among the best," said Barry Bradford, distinguished speaker at the Organization of American Historians.

"The historical heritage generally improves over time, but it takes time and space."

Washington is an example of how all monument making can undermine the less favorable or controversial legacy of a plantation owner who owned slaves.

Considered by many historians and laymen as the most influential figure in American history, Washington's reputation is reinforced by its role that led the Continental Army to victory over the British during the war. 39; independence.

Illustration of a postcard for the Washington anniversary featuring the image of President George Washington with stars and stripes.Jim Heimann Collection / Archive Photos / Getty Images

It's a legacy that's got amplified over time, said bestselling author Brad Meltzer, whose latest book, "The First Conspiracy," recounts a little assassination attempt. known to General Washington during the early days of the war.

"We love to tell the story of the great General Washington, but in his early battles he was systematically getting ahead," Meltzer said. "It just does not have the experience of the British.

"We are a country that loves legends and myths, and the myths we love most are ours."

Over time, Lincoln became as famous as Washington – at least in those parts of the country that won the Civil War.

It is probably for this reason that Lincoln's birthday, February 12, never became a national holiday, although many celebrate it as part of Presidents' Day following the passage of the Act. uniform on the holidays of Monday in 1971.

"In the South, Lincoln's reservations are considerable," said Foner. "While many associate it primarily with the emancipation of slaves, there is a neo-confederate element that views Lincoln as a tyrant who has removed state rights, introduced income tax and suspended habeas corpus. "

While it is difficult to assess the future legacy of a president – including Trump or Obama – during their lifetime, American history has shown some trends.

President John F. Kennedy reports to the nation of the state of the Cuban crisis since Washington on November 2, 1962. AP file

Assassinated presidents tend to be romanticized with additional mystique. "John F. Kennedy is widely admired by Democrats and Republicans, and today he is usually at the top of the rankings of the top presidents, even though his presidency is rather short and fruitful," said Foner.

Driving a country during a war or a major crisis is also a selective reminder, which explains the popularity of Franklin D. Roosevelt despite his role in interning Americans of Japanese descent to the US. time. Roosevelt presided over the United States during the Second World War.

Modern presidents, however, may have a more difficult path to reach this level of popularity than their predecessors. And that comes down to those tweets.

"The advent of social media and blogging makes it less likely to achieve a consensus," Bradford said. "At a time when we depended on the Huntley-Brinkley Report or Time magazine to tell us what was going on, we did not think that all opinions were equal.

"In order to achieve this popular consensus, we need to restore confidence in the media and in historical thinking in general.Whether we are constantly told that what we read is a" false news ", how can we put ourselves in the wrong position? agree on what is real? "

Meltzer, however, thinks the past shows that Americans can look to the future if they are not so optimistic in the present.

"If history proves one thing, in our worst moments, we have our best heroes," said Meltzer, host of the television show "Lost History."

"Right now, in a supermarket, there is a child who pulls the Cheetos off the shelves and gets angry," he said. "And this child will one day become president and do something amazing."

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