DOVER — Passionate history buffs will gather next Sunday at the Old State House in Dover to determine our country’s greatest president — George Washington or Abraham Lincoln.
It has always made for a great debate, argued by historian after historian. Almost all rankings show the two first and second, but not across-the-board one over the other.
Teams representing the two presidents will have to make a case before Resident Judge William Witham of the Superior Court of Kent County.
Larry Koch, a retired educator from Maine, pitched the idea last year after a program on George Washington at the Old State House.
“I thought this would be a good forum and a fun way to learn about both presidents,” said Mr. Koch, who now lives in Frederica.
Mr. Koch and Daniel Pritchett, a retired Dover history teacher, will represent President Lincoln.
“My feeling is that Lincoln is a lot more accessible,” said Mr. Koch. “You can identify with someone who worked his way up, who was self-taught, more than you can a guy who was one of the richest people in the Revolution, a top general.
“Virtually, every president who gets in sets himself right with Lincoln. FDR (Franklin Delano Roosevelt) did it. Barack Obama did it.
“Nobody ever does that with Washington.”
Samuel Hoff, a George Washington Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science at Delaware State University, and Tom Welch, a historic-site interpreter at the Old State House, will represent President Washington.
“We’re not going to end this debate,” said Dr. Hoff. “There might be a winner declared and I’m confident it’ll be George Washington — a little trash talking there. But in doing this, we’re adding (to the debate).”
Mr. Welch offered a quick overview of the Presidents Day weekend program.
“It will be hard to determine one more than the other since both Washington and Lincoln were not only great men in their own right, but the times that they lived in and the challenges that they faced challenged them to be their best,” said Mr. Welch. “One man, George Washington, played a pivotal role in saving the nation, forming the Constitution, and then creating the institution of the presidency almost with no model to follow.
“The other man Lincoln faced the greatest challenges that any president has had to face, saving the Union, winning the War, and ending slavery. The wounds were great then and have persisted to this day.”
Dr. Hoff said he will be careful to go beyond the easy argument that President Washington was first.
“When we transfer the question from basic individuals to reputations and performance, then perhaps we can do a
little separation,” said Dr. Hoff.
There may be a chance, too, to reflect on President Washington’s farewell address.
As President Obama was leaving office, several national news organizations had renewed interest in his 1796 words — first published in a Philadelphia newspaper — to announce his decision not to run for a third term.
(No doubt, this was one of the best “scoops” in American newspaper history.)
President Washington, notes Dr. Hoff, was not only tiring of the political strife of the day but also creating the two-term example that most future presidents followed.
In his address, President Washington urged Americans not to be split by a party system, saying, “It agitates the Community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions.”
Mr. Koch said it will be a civil debate, but there will be some criticisms of the presidents.
“The debate setting will allow the audience to hear and observe the strengths and to some extent their human failings,” said Mr. Welch. “The audience will then be asked to make a selection as to which man was the greatest president. I believe it will be as hard a choice for them as it is for me.”
The audience, said Dr. Hoff, is encouraged to come with questions.
“I want this to be educational, most importantly, but I think it will also be entertainment,” said Dr. Hoff.
He said he is especially looking forward to the participation of the audience.
“We want this to not just be people talking to them,” he said. “Anyone really into this topic is welcome.”
The “Washington vs. Lincoln — Who Was the Greatest President?” program is sponsored by The Old State House and the Dover History Book Club.
The program starts at 2 p.m. in the Old State House on The Green in Dover.
The Old State House was completed in 1791 and in use during both presidents’ terms in office.
Admission is free but, space is limited. Reservations are required by calling (302) 744-5054 no later than Saturday.
After the verdict is announced, a reception will be held in which apple pie (Lincoln’s favorite) and cherry pie (associated with Washington) will be served.
Washington and Lincoln memorabilia from three different collections will also be on display.
In today’s People section, we have a preview of a new Delaware State News-sponsored event — “African American History Live.”
The event starts at 6 p.m. Friday, Feb. 24, at the Sankofa Cultural Arts Center at 39 S. West St, Dover.
On Tuesday, the Sussex County Profile, produced by our sister publication the Sussex County Post, will be released at a special event in Georgetown. It will be available online at www.SussexCountyProfile.com.
The Kent County Profile, produced by the Delaware State News, was released last month. It features progress at Dover Air Force Base in its cover story. It is available at www.KentCountyProfile.com.
Reach editor Andrew West at email@example.com