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A Presidents Day reminder: Most Americans still view the Founding Fathers favorably

Washington, Jefferson and others were not nearly as popular during their lifetime as they are today.

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The Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol is seen behind a statue of George Washington as Congress leaves Washington for a week, Friday, March 15, 2019.

J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

It wasn’t too long ago that America celebrated the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln as separate holidays. Now, those events have been merged together as Presidents Day, and it’s celebrated on the birthday of neither man. Still, it seems appropriate to note that Abraham Lincoln is viewed favorably by 91% of American voters while just 4% hold an unfavorable view. George Washington gets positive reviews from 84% and negative reviews from 7%.

Another deified founder of the nation — Thomas Jefferson — is seen favorably by 80% and unfavorably by 9%. Jefferson was better known for writing the Declaration of Independence than his time in the White House, but his presidency was consequential as well.

Of course, it goes without saying that none of these men were as popular during their lifetime as they are today. They all endured controversies big and small along with political rivalries and media criticism. It is their legends and impact on our nation — rather than the reality of their time on earth — that earns them such glowing assessments.

During my lifetime, another man has moved into the pantheon of American legends. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was never president, but he is now viewed favorably by 91% of voters and unfavorably by just 5% (all numbers are from polling I conducted this past weekend). As with Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln, he was far more controversial and less popular while alive.

It is good for a nation to have legends. Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and King all contributed mightily to the heritage of freedom and equality enjoyed by 21st century Americans.

As a young man, I read a celebrated biography of George Washington — “The Indispensable Man.” I believed the title to be an accurate description of a hero I truly idolized. After leading the colonies to victory in the War of Independence, he could have declared himself king. But that wasn’t what he fought to accomplish. His patience and wisdom led to the creation of our Constitution, a marvelous system of checks and balances. Both that document, and the precedents Washington set as our first president, have served our nation well.

In another phase of my life, I marveled over the work and ministry of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His Letter from a Birmingham Jail is a remarkable moral and political document. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech has joined the Declaration of Independence and Gettysburg Address as expressions of the American Creed — the belief that all of us are created equal and are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights.

Perhaps most of all, I remain awed by King’s successful leadership of a non-violent protest movement. His strategy made truths that were too uncomfortable to talk about too visible to ignore. His disciplined approach to protest left no doubt as to which side was acting against America’s highest ideals.

Still, as much as I admire these men, I have come to understand that politicians — even legendary politicians — are not nearly as important as we make them out to be.

Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and King all played a vital role in our national story. They did so by standing on the shoulders of those who came before them. They gave voice to the public mood, provided practical guidance to help the nation get where it was going, and became catalysts for changes that were already taking place in the nation. Ultimately, they became symbols of that change.

But, despite all of their accomplishments, the changes they represent were led by American society and culture. We are blessed to live in a land where almost all positive change in America comes from far outside the political system. That’s something to celebrate on Presidents Day!

Scott Rasmussen is an American political analyst and digital media entrepreneur. He is the author of “The Sun is Still Rising: Politics Has Failed But America Will Not.”