THE BLOG
02/19/2014 05:00 pm ET Updated Apr 21, 2014

A Tale of Two Fathers

Each year at this time we celebrate the births of two of our nation's greatest leaders, Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. The points of similarity and difference between them are many and obvious. One was known as the father of his country and led an inexperienced army to an unexpected victory against the foremost military power in the world; the other was a kind of second father, leading the nation through a war of unprecedented devastation that brought about what he famously called a "new birth of freedom." Yet one is credited with the end of slavery; the other owned slaves, even though he wished and planned to free them.

This year, I want to offer a different comparison -- not between Washington and Lincoln but between Washington and a more recent father of his nation: the late Nelson Mandela. This time, the points of contrast are especially obvious, even glaring. George Washington belonged to a landed gentry that depended for its wealth on the uncompensated labor of Africans brought to his country through a massive and horrific system of abduction, imprisonment, and forced transportation; Nelson Mandela, a proud descendant of African royalty, spent much of his life in prison for his role in a decades-long struggle to overturn the legal and economic imprisonment of those who shared his heritage. Yet both were leaders of liberation movements that eventually prevailed against daunting odds, giving birth in each case to a new democracy that, for all the turbulence and uncertainty of its beginnings, would stand as a model for other nations to emulate.

There is a less obvious connection between them, however, that I particularly wish to note as we celebrate their memories and take inspiration from their examples. Each of them, at the moment of greatest triumph, made a surprising decision that, perhaps more than any other act in his long career, set the future course of his nation's history.

For Washington, it was the decision to give up power -- not once, but twice. Having defeated the British armies and secured American independence, Washington certainly could have installed a monarchy with himself as king, and many expected he would do just that. But Washington chose a different path. He resigned his commission and expressed his wish to return to private life.

In Britain, the defeated King George III famously asked the American painter Benjamin West what Washington planned to do following the Revolution. Informed of the general's plan to retire from public life, the king replied, "If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world."

That greatness was confirmed six years later when Washington was called back to public service. As president of the Constitutional Convention and, subsequently, our first president, Washington's reluctance to assume the mantle of power meant that all factions trusted him to act not in his own best interest but in the nation's. And at the end of his second term, Washington walked away again, "[s]atisfied that if any circumstances have given peculiar value to my services, they were temporary."

Mandela similarly led his country through a transition as it shed the vestiges of colonial rule. After 27 years in prison and decades of oppression at the hands of a white minority, Mandela could have exacted retribution when he became South Africa's first black president. Yet, like Washington, he chose to follow a path that would strengthen his nation for the future. Instead of prosecution, Mandela chose reconciliation; instead of a new system of apartheid, he chose national unity.

Mandela's commitment to reconciliation was evident from his first moment as president, as he invited three of the warders who had imprisoned him to sit in the VIP section at his inauguration. When he later convened the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he encouraged his fellow citizens to seek and offer forgiveness. Like Washington, the father of a new South Africa opted to use his considerable power and popularity not to strengthen his own standing but to build a foundation for the future. And like Washington, Mandela left power gracefully when he retired from political life in 2000.

This is not the whole story. Neither of these individuals could have succeeded without the help of the countless women and men they enlisted in support of their causes. And the democracies they did so much to create are still experiments, still exceptions to the long millennia of human social and political organization. It is still too soon to say whether, adapting Lincoln's unforgettable words, government of the people, for the people, and by the people shall or shall not perish from the earth. But the self-transcending leadership of these two "fathers" gives hope that perhaps it won't.