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Lessons in Leadership From Our Greatest Presidents

By Sen. John Thune

February 16, 2024

South Dakota is second to none when it comes to celebrating America’s presidents. The iconic Mount Rushmore memorializes four of them in larger-than-life granite. As many times as I’ve seen it, Mount Rushmore never gets old, and it still inspires me, as I’m sure it inspires the millions of visitors who come to the Black Hills to see the monument each year. Down the road in Rapid City, statues of our presidents line the streets of downtown. So when Presidents Day comes around each year, South Dakotans know the people who have held that office.

Presidents Day is a chance to celebrate all of our presidents, and in particular during this month we honor two of our greatest leaders, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, whose birthdays are in February.

Our first president, George Washington, was a soldier, farmer, and statesman. When the American Revolution came, he was named commander in chief of the Continental Army. The ragtag army he led faced long odds against British forces. But Washington’s leadership earned him the dedication of his men, and they ultimately won the war.

When the revolution ended, Washington was a national hero. But rather than bask in his fame or take power for himself, Washington resigned his military commission and went home to his Virginia farm. But he would leave home once again when his country called on him to serve, first at the Constitutional Convention and then as the nation’s first president. His presidency set the tone for the office and set the United States on a solid footing as a new nation.

As Washington’s legacy is the nation’s founding, Abraham Lincoln’s is its preservation. Born in a Kentucky log cabin and largely self-taught, Lincoln came of age in a tumultuous time in American history. He was a young lawyer and legislator as the national debate over slavery was intensifying, and it would become the defining issue of his public life.

A one-term congressman and twice-failed Senate candidate, Lincoln was a long-shot candidate for the presidency when he ran in 1860. But he won his party’s nomination and the White House. After his election, 11 southern states seceded and, within weeks of his inauguration, the Civil War began. The war consumed his presidency, but Lincoln’s steady leadership shepherded the country through some of its darkest days. He issued the Emancipation Proclamation, pushed Congress to pass the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery, and, in his second inaugural address just weeks before the war’s end, he urged reconciliation. He was tragically assassinated just days after the war ended, but he had already left an indelible mark on our nation’s history.

Neither Washington nor Lincoln were perfect men, but when their country needed them, they stepped up to serve. In our defining moments, America has been fortunate to have leaders like Washington and Lincoln.