Those who marched in peace demonstrations this Presidents’ Day weekend probably missed the irony: The two men we were commemorating — George Washington and Abraham Lincoln — chose war when they believed it was the lesser of two evils.
Was the Father of Our Country unwise to fight the British during the American Revolution? Americans were hardly contending against the axis of evil — King George III was no Hitler. Indeed, in the years leading up to 1776, Americans were subjects in the freest empire in the world. Even as parliament and agents of the Crown trampled on colonists’ rights, Virginians, New Yorkers, and Pennsylvanians remained relatively better off than any other people on earth. Loyalists to the Crown shrugged off London’s trespasses in North America, reasoning that no place in the world was perfect, that it was better to go along and get along than to unleash the chaos of war. By the mores of the day, Loyalists were patient and prudent.
And yet — and yet — numerous influential Americans found London’s unchecked power intolerable. They were willing to risk their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor” to throw out His Majesty’s governors and soldiers. Washington accepted the commission to lead the Continental Army out of a strong sense of the inherited rights of Englishmen — rights that George III treated capriciously.
Moreover, Washington’s historical imagination had been shaped by a popular play, Addison’s Cato, which portrayed Roman republicans in a life-or-death struggle against Caesar (a struggle the republicans lost). The British monarch was seen as a modern-day Caesar. Abandoning salutary neglect, London’s aims clashed increasingly with those of the colonists. There came a point when the future president was persuaded that an unjust peace was worse than a just war.
What about the other man America commemorated this Presidents’ Day? Was Lincoln also unwise to choose war? The Civil War was not inevitable. The Great Emancipator could have avoided spilling the blood of fellow Americans by embracing the course of his predecessor, James Buchanan: peace at any price.
That was not Lincoln’s way. Because his historical imagination had been shaped by biblical and Shakespearean tragedy, he saw that conflict was sometimes necessary. There came a point when the new president chose war, convinced that to tolerate an unjust peace was worse. With the zeal of a missionary, he pledged himself to the idea of a more perfect union and chose to fight for that idea. At some point in the conflict, he also chose to fight for a new birth of freedom for a dispossessed race in North America.
Those who are marching for peace this weekend were certainly correct when they assert that war is not inevitable. War, like appeasement, is a choice. But it is worth pondering when our nation’s presidents have chosen war. After a long train of abuses, after the breakdown of diplomacy, many of our most highly regarded commanders-in-chief chose confrontation over accommodation. Who today blames Madison for striking back in 1812 when British depredations on the high seas grew intolerable? Who today censures Wilson for fighting back in 1917 when Germany showed no remorse for killing innocent travelers in the North Atlantic? Does any serious thinker believe FDR was wrong to go to war after Pearl Harbor? Or that George W. Bush was wrong to go after al Qaeda in Afghanistan after September 11?
America has fought just wars. Most Americans would agree that Washington and Lincoln chose the better part, even when it meant violence. Try to imagine what this nation would be had they not chosen war. The presidents we commemorate today understood that an unjust peace is not really peace at all, that it can be worse than a just war. The wisdom is in drawing the distinction — and having the courage to act on it.
— Gleaves Whitney is the editor of American Presidents: Farewell Addresses to the Nation, and a forthcoming book on the wartime speeches of U.S. presidents.