Every year on the third Monday in February, Americans celebrate Presidents Day. In Utah, the holiday is observed as Washington and Lincoln Day, a not-so-subtle reminder that not all presidents merit celebration. We instead celebrate a certain kind of presidential leadership epitomized by our two greatest presidents. 

George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are our greatest presidents because they established and faithfully stewarded our constitutional inheritance. The Framers of the Constitution in Philadelphia set constitutional fidelity as the standard for presidential greatness when they included the wording of the presidential oath in the constitutional text — which is still used verbatim today — and made the preservation of the Constitution its focal point. Every president upon entering office must solemnly swear or affirm that they will “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

Washington, as is often observed, was the indispensable man in the creation of our constitutional order. It was not simply the fact that he led the war effort for independence, but how he did so set him on the path to becoming the father of our republic. Throughout the war, Washington insisted that strategic decisions be made by the civil authority of Congress. After the war, he confirmed his commitment to the rule of law and the primacy of civil over military power when he faced down a plot by his own officers to extort the pay they were owed from Congress through a military coup.

As president, Washington’s careful attention to the Constitution established a strong and independent executive branch, but one whose contours and limits were determined by the constitutional separation of powers rather than partisan whims. Upon leaving office, he reminded his fellow citizens to carefully adhere to the Constitution they had adopted and to exercise even greater care in changing it: “If in the opinion of the people the distribution or modification of the constitutional powers be in any particular wrong, let it be corrected by an amendment in the way which the Constitution designates. But let there be no change by usurpation; for though this in one instance may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed.”

Why we celebrate Presidents Day
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Lincoln earned his place alongside Washington not as founder but as preserver of our Constitution. Lincoln also exemplified the duties of the presidential oath to preserve, protect and defend it from its enemies. Lincoln took to heart Washington’s charge that “the constitution which at any time exists till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people is sacredly obligatory upon all.”

This is not a universally held view of Lincoln’s leadership. Harvard’s Noah Feldman has recently argued in “The Broken Constitution” that Lincoln routinely violated the Constitution by using force to prevent the lawful secession of Southern states, by suspending the writ of habeas corpus through executive order rather than a congressional statute, and by exercising federal power to prevent the spread of slavery to territories where it did not yet exist. Under this interpretation, Lincoln did not preserve the Constitution; he instead scrapped it and founded a new and better constitutional order.

This view gets Lincoln and the Constitution wrong. In exercising the powers of the presidency to stop the expansion of slavery, prevent secession and preserve the Union, Lincoln carefully explained the constitutional basis of his actions. He never rested his case for the exercise of power on mere necessity or popularity. He joined a long line of Founders and constitutionalists from Washington, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison to John Marshall and even Andrew Jackson in describing secession not as a constitutional right to be acceded to but as a revolutionary act of rebellion to be resisted.

The Constitution itself contemplated a forceful response to rebellion as an act of war when it expressly authorized the suspension of habeas corpus in the face of invasion or rebellion. And Lincoln’s efforts to use federal authority to stop the spread of slavery to the territories was a power regularly exercised by Congress starting with the Northwest Ordinance in 1787 — the same year the Constitution was drafted.

Lincoln’s task was to preserve the natural rights republicanism of the Founding, which was so powerfully articulated in the Declaration of Independence and imperfectly approximated in the Constitution. He would not live to see the ratification of the Reconstruction amendments making our union more perfect, but his faithful stewardship of our constitutional inheritance secured their success.

Democratic elections do not naturally produce the constitutional statesmanship exhibited by Washington and Lincoln. As Hamilton noted in his defense of the Electoral College in Federalist 68, popular elections are as apt to give the advantage to “talents for low intrigue and the little arts of popularity” as they are to produce “characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue.” Popular elections do little to buffer appeals to fear and outrage if that is what the electorate demands. The state of civil society, public morality and civic virtue will be reflected in the candidate we choose.

Our greatest presidents have preserved the Constitution and transmitted it faithfully to the next generation. As we embark on yet another election year, we should remember their example and insist that those who seek the presidency live up to it.

Matthew Brogdon serves as senior director of the Center for Constitutional Studies at Utah Valley University.