What Early Presidents Teach About Politics Today

Reflecting on history reminds the author that today's politics are not all new.

ByABC News
February 15, 2008, 4:40 PM

Feb. 18, 2008 — -- Americans are gloomy about many elements of their lives and list war,the economy and health care as top concerns. They do not even liketheir jobs very much, as a survey by Taleo Research found. When asked how they would feel about their job if it were an actual person, less thanone in 10 said they love it enough to marry it.

Have Americans always been so pessimistic?

On this President's Day holiday, it is helpful to look back to GeorgeWashington's and Abraham Lincoln's time for perspective.

The top concerns Washington faced in 1789 were war, the economy andepidemic health issues. The top concerns confronting Lincoln in 1861were a looming civil war, creating an economy that would benefit theentire country, slavery and promoting an ethical government. Do some ofthese issues sound familiar?

Washington's biggest challenge was healing the country after theAmerican Revolution. We forget that not everyone wanted to secede fromEngland and there was disagreement over how to treat the "loyalists."

He also managed an economy that was based on agricultural production onlarge plantation farms. Tobacco was the primary crop and was a toughone to grow, requiring slave labor to yield crops for export.

Unlike now, there were no machines, no pesticides and no genetically modifiedseeds that resist weeds. A very risky endeavor.

In 1789, the leading causes of death in the United States were smallpox,tuberculosis and malaria. Life expectancy was 40 years old. Aftersurviving small pox as a child and bullets during the AmericanRevolution, Washington died at age 67, several days after a long horseride in the freezing rain. The cause of death was an inflammation ofthe larynx.

While Washington took office after a major war, Lincoln'sentire presidency was focused on another. The Civil War dominated hispresidency and the economy for four years. Lincoln tookoffice in 1860; tuberculosis, diarrhea and pneumonia were the top causesof death and the average American lived to be just over 40.