For Americans approaching a divisive election year, Presidents Day can be particularly instructive. That is especially true considering the examples set by the two men whose birthdays fall in this month: George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

A simple comparison between their leadership and today’s political atmosphere can serve as a gut check for the republic. Their examples pertain not only to those who are aiming for the White House, but to candidates for any elected office in the land.

One word in particular emerges from any serious study of the two men: humility.

In an essay on this subject for The Catalyst two years ago, former Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam wrote, “It has been said that those who choose to seek the high road of humility in politics will never run into a traffic jam.” 

Politics, he said, once was described to him as “for people who wanted to be in show business but didn’t have the looks.”

This sad appraisal has the ring of truth. But that is as much the voters’ fault as the candidates’. Hubris is seen, correctly in many cases, as more conducive to getting votes. 

Not only that, as Haslam wrote, it’s hard to remain humble when you have “an opponent who chooses to spend a lot of money on television to let everyone know that you are too liberal, too conservative, crooked, a puppet, inexperienced, and that you hate children and old people.”

Lincoln, on the other hand, was at times so humble that it caught people off guard. His signature speech, the brief Gettysburg Address, made a point of predicting “the world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here.”  

That may be one of history’s most inaccurate assessments, but Rabbi Menachem Genack, writing for The Hill, said it “was not an expression of false modesty nor just a poor prediction of how that tribute would be recorded. It was a symbol of deep-seated humility.”

He continued, “This is one of the facets that sets Lincoln apart from nearly every other commander-in-chief — his dignity, eloquence, and integrity, all wrapped up in a leader willing to admit his mistakes, accept his shortcomings, and learn from them.”

When was the last time you heard a presidential aspirant admit mistakes or exhibit such self-abasing humility? When did you last see a president surround himself with a cabinet filled with his own political enemies, as Lincoln did with what historian Doris Kearns Goodwin called the “Team of Rivals”?

Humility and honesty go hand in hand. Hubris, on the other hand, ignores any countervailing view that may tarnish a leader’s exalted self-image. Humility acknowledges weakness and tends to seek strength and wisdom from a higher power. Hubris tends to ignore even the advice of trusted advisers.

But sadly, voters often reward hubris and derive pleasure from hearing a politician belittle opponents. One often hears admiration for those who are seen as bravely “telling it like it is,” when in reality they are engaged in the most infantile name-calling.

That’s not new, either. Washington saw much the same in his day. He voluntarily chose to limit himself to two terms in office, an almost unprecedented voluntary relinquishing of power that set the tone for the office until Franklin Roosevelt, and that now is written into the Constitution.

But, as an essay for the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History makes clear, Washington resisted a third term in part because of where he saw politics going. 

“‘The line between Parties,’ Washington wrote (to Connecticut Gov. Jonathan) Trumbull, had become ‘so clearly drawn’ that politicians would ‘regard neither truth nor decency; attacking every character, without respect to persons — public or private, — who happen to differ from themselves in Politics,’” the essay said.

“Washington wrote that, even if he were willing to run for president again, as a Federalist, ‘I am thoroughly convinced I should not draw a single vote from the anti-federal side.’”

That sounds very much like any pressing issue before Congress today, where political parties often close ranks, and where votes often follow party lines.

While the notion that humility brings strength may seem counterintuitive, history shows otherwise. Americans should be grateful they have Presidents Day to remind them of this, if they choose to listen.