Our Government Is There to Serve the People — Not the Other Way Around
On Presidents Day and always, let's recall the truths that George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan all drove home
Americans celebrate Presidents Day to commemorate the birthdays of two of the country’s greatest presidents.
George Washington, the wealthy southern plantation owner, and Abraham Lincoln, the log cabin-born and self-made son of the soil, came from starkly different backgrounds and life experiences. Yet they literally shaped America into the nation it ultimately became.
No other presidents have been as informative and inspiring in molding both the American national character and our government, not to mention the presidential office itself.
George Washington was indeed the father of the country. He guided this newborn nation successfully through its first great crisis, the American Revolution.
Overwhelmingly popular as a national hero, having led the Continental Army to victory over the modern world’s first super power, Great Britain, Washington spurned offers to become a monarch and refused to shackle the newly created American presidency with the title, preferments and prerogatives of European monarchy.
Most historians believe Washington’s greatest gift to his country was to impose upon himself a voluntary two-term limit on presidential service, relinquishing political power and returning to private life at Mount Vernon. This extraordinary, virtually unprecedented voluntary surrender of political power bequeathed the tradition of the restraint of executive power in the federal government that has served this nation so well, now for more than two centuries.
Almost all Americans would agree George Washington helped us forge a government of the people, by the people and for the people.
Six decades later, Abraham Lincoln became president amid the nation’s second great crisis: the split over slavery that descended into a horribly bloody Civil War, and served the country for four terrible and destructive years.
The entirety of Lincoln’s presidency was filled with preparation for war, war itself and its bitter aftermath — made yet more bitter by perhaps the worse individual calamity to ever befall the American people, Lincoln’s assassination. In the midst of the terrible bloodletting that was America’s Civil War, Lincoln struggled for answers to provide greater meaning and purpose that would justify the agonizing suffering, tormenting the nation.
Elton Trueblood, in fact, meaningfully described Lincoln as the “theologian of American anguish.”
In November 1863, President Lincoln journeyed to Gettysburg, the site of the bloodiest battle ever fought on American soil. The land was still scarred and littered with the aftermath of the great three-day battle that had been fought there months earlier.
Lincoln had come to dedicate a cemetery for the tens of thousands of Union soldiers who had been killed. His speech became almost an instant classic, as Lincoln managed to distill into such pithy language the ultimate meaning of the struggle and the unique nature of the American experiment in self-government.
The simple but timeless words of his Gettysburg Address grabbed the heart and the mind as if they were spoken yesterday: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure … that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Now we know from an eyewitness what the emphasis was in the last lines of that speech. Most people today say, “of the people, by the people and for the people.” But Lincoln, when he delivered the speech, said, “Government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
In his long-revered words, Lincoln gave us timeless truth. But another great president, Ronald Reagan, understood these truths as well.
On Feb. 3, 1983, just after the 10th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Reagan wrote a lengthy article for The Human Life Review in which he asserted: “Make no mistake, abortion on demand is not a right granted by the Constitution.”
Here are more of this wise president’s words:
- “The real question today is not when human life begins, but, what is the value of human life? The abortionist who reassembles the arms and legs of a tiny baby to make sure all its parts have been torn from its mother’s body can hardly doubt whether it is a human being. The real question for him and for all of us is whether that tiny human life has a God-given right to be protected by the law — the same right we have.”
- “Whether we are talking about pain suffered by unborn children, or about late-term abortions, or about infanticide, we inevitably focus on the humanity of the unborn child. Each of these issues is a potential rallying point for the sanctity of life ethic. Once we as a nation rally around anyone of these issues to affirm the sanctity of life, we will see the importance of affirming this principle across the board.”
- “Abraham Lincoln recognized that we could not survive as a free land when some men could decide that others were not fit to be free and should therefore be slaves. Likewise, we cannot survive as a free nation when some men decide that others are not fit to live and should be abandoned to abortion or infanticide.”
What a timely word for America today, decades after Ronald Reagan put pen to paper — a culture in which we are now making it legal for a baby to be aborted right up until the moment of birth.
And not only are we making this atrocity legal, states are celebrating it in lights.
To Washington, Lincoln and Reagan, the people were sovereign, and the government gained its authority from the consent of the governed, not top-down government.
It is important for Americans to remember this priceless national heritage, as evidence abounds that America faces a crisis of confidence in itself, in our government, and in our future.
It is time for Americans to look to their priceless historical heritage as embodied in these presidents and remember that we are the ones who confer power on the government, by our consent — and the government is there to serve us.
Elected officials derive their authority from the people — and they can be replaced when they forget for whom they work.
Next year we will elect a president, a third of the Senate, all of the House, and a good portion of our governors and of our state houses.
We have the opportunity once again to remind our elected officials, and those who would be our elected officials, that they derive their authority from the people, and that they can be replaced when they forget for whom they work. It is government of the people, by the people and for the people that shall not perish from the earth.
May God bless America.
Dr. Richard Land is an evangelical leader and president of Southern Evangelical Seminary. He serves on President Donald Trump’s faith advisory board. He also served previously as president of The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission for the Southern Baptist Convention and was appointed a senior research fellow of the ERLC’s Research Institute. He has been chosen as one of the top 25 most influential Evangelicals in America by Time magazine and named in the top 15 of Newsmax’s “Top 100 Christian Leaders in America.” Dr. Land is featured in his nationally syndicated daily radio commentary, “Bringing Every Thought Captive,” which airs on nearly 800 stations nationwide.