Monday, February 15, 2010

President's Day...

Two brief annecdotes this President's Day from my friend Frank DeVecchis, former Director of Alumni Relations at St. Joseph's University and now the Associate Director of the Wharton Fund at Penn:

December 1776 was a bleak time for those sympathetic to the cause of American freedom. The British army led by General Howe had taken New York and forced the Continental Army's retreat into Pennsylvania. By the close of the month British forces and German mercenaries were separated from the fledgling nation's capital by a distance of thirty miles, forcing delegates to the Continental Congress to quickly pack their belongings and evacuate Philadelphia for the comparable safety of Baltimore. The British were delayed, however, due to a brazen attack led by Generals Washington and Henry Knox on Trenton, Christmas Eve 1776. Washington pushed his advantage to gain another win at Princeton several days later, thus sparing Philadelphia for the time being.

Congress, fearing they would be unable to act with the speed Washington required to conduct operations of war and fearing a mass desertion of troops when their enrollments expired at the end of the month, voted on December 27, 1776 to grant the General near dictatorial powers. The resolution granted Washington the unquestioned authority to draft men into military service, appoint officers to the army without Congressional approval, set soldiers' pay, establish armories to build and store munitions, buy provisions as he saw fit and take from the populace what provisions he required if they refused to sell at a price he deemed fair, arrest individuals who refused Continental currency or were "otherwise disaffected to the American cause." These powers were to expire in six months according to the legislation but essentially remained in effect through the balance of the war.

When the American forces triumphed over the British in 1783 Washington made known his intent to surrender his command and retire to his estate at Mount Vernon. King George III, ruler of the British Empire greeted this news with incredulity, stating in court that, "...if he does that he will be the greatest man in the world!" On December 23, 1783 at Fraunces Tavern in New York Washington bade farewell to his most trusted officers, surrendered his command and returned to Mount Vernon.

Richmond, Virginia, capital city of the Confederacy, fell to Union soldiers on April 3, 1865. The next day President Lincoln, intent on restoring peace among all states even at the cost of his own safety, insisted on going himself to Richmond. He set out early and arrived in the city just after 11:00 a.m., entering on foot with a guard of about half a dozen soldiers, a number of military commanders and his son, Tad Lincoln, who was that day celebrating his twelfth birthday.

Crowds lined the streets eager to see the President. Scattered among the people were groups of newly emancipated slaves. As Lincoln passed one such group, the men and women fell to their knees at the sight of the President and cried, "Glory Hallelujah!" Lincoln looked at them for a moment then approached and motioned for them to rise. In doing so he said, "Don't kneel to me. You must kneel only to God and thank Him for your freedom. Liberty is your birthright. God gave it to you as He gave it to others and it is a sin that you have been deprived of it for so many years."

These men were great in their humility but unafraid to act on their conviction when they knew their cause to be just no matter the cost. This is the true meaning and test of leadership. Our country was made greate by people like Washington and Lincoln - we would do well to remember them and the lessons they can teach us and pass these lessons along to others.

Feel free to forward this one and share with others the greatness of these American heroes.

-Frank DeVecchis

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