When one considers the most prominent reformers and leaders of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, the names of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Kemal Atatürk come to mind. Although these men governed during different centuries, their objectives were the same; to modernize their laws and institutions to move their countries ahead, and to improve the lives of their citizens. While Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln governed and modernized the United States, Kemal Atatürk was a leader and reformer in the Republic of Turkey. Incredibly, many of their ideals, goals, and accomplishments were the same, which reminds us that ultimately, modernity and progress require many of the same principles.
George Washington led the Continental Army against the British in the American Revolutionary war. From a war hero, he became the First President for two consecutive terms. Often referred to as the “Father of the nation,” he served as an example for future leaders not only in America, but for newly emerging countries around the world for many years to come.
In 1776, he forced the British out of Boston, and kept going. After the end of the war in 1783, Washington shed his military garb and retired on Mount Vernon, not far from Washington DC.
But duty called once again. Because the Articles of Confederation did not hold the country together, he supervised the drafting of the 1787 United States Constitution.
Washington became President in 1789, and worked diligently to steer his country from danger and into the future. In 1793 his Proclamation of Neutrality kept peace in the country.
Washington was assisted by his able colleague Thomas Jefferson who was tasked with a committee to update Virginia’s laws. Undertaking economic, social, and political reforms 1776-1796, one of the first issues was to provide the right to vote for all men, not just wealthy land owners.
Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues were asking themselves how they would move forward in starting a new government. What should the makeup be, what should be the relationship between the states and the federal government?
Jefferson believed in secular education, not religion, reducing the influence of the Anglican church. Born and raised an Anglican, he believed in broader religious freedom
A strong believer in the rights of the individual not only in religion, but also in politics, he implemented the separation of church and state. The first step was in 1779, when all Anglican clergy no longer received salaries from the government.
In addition, Jefferson modernized the existing legal system and penal code. The constitution for Virginia was a model for other states.
Nearly a hundred years later, Abraham Lincoln from Illinois was elected President of the United States in 1861. He governed during the difficult years of the Civil War, which cost thousands of lives. Yet he faced the challenge of putting together a nation and watching over the reconstruction which followed.
But his 1863 Emancipation Proclamation and thirteenth amendment to the constitution abolished slavery. His Gettysburg Address emphasized freedom and democracy.
Abraham Lincoln’s legacy remains today, as he promoted nationalism, and rebuilt a nation that overcame division and achieved unity. His assassination in 1865 made him a hero. In the 2007 President’s Day survey, he was ranked as the country’s best President.
Like George Washington, Atatürk was a military genius, an ex-general who led the country in its war of independence, and became the first President of a new nation, earning the name of “father of the nation” for Washington.. “Atatürk” had the same meaning in Turkish for Mustafa Kemal who ejected the Ottoman dynasty to form a new Republic.
While Washington had the Proclamation of neutrality, Atatürk knew that for the country to survive, it would have to steer clear of foreign entanglements, so he chose different words for the same message; ‘peace at home, peace in the world’ as a guiding principle.
He had the daunting task of rebuilding the country after a brutal war of independence. After the Republic of Turkey was established in 1923 and Atatürk became its first President, he introduced a series of reforms between 1924 and 1938 which transformed the country’s political, social, judicial, educational, and cultural laws designed to modernize the country and anchor it firmly in the west.
Like Jefferson, Atatürk was a reformer. He believed in secularism, and the rights of the individual. He modernized the legal system and the penal code. While Jefferson’s constitution served as a model for other states, Atatürk’s was a model for other countries with predominantly Muslim populations.
One of the most dramatic political reforms was the abolishment of the Sultanate and Caliphate, the end of the 600 year Ottoman empire, and the birth of a secular Republic of Turkey.
Social reforms included granting women equal rights, adoption of the international calendar, removing the chador and fez from the dress, and a law requiring citizens to acquire last names.
Regarding judicial reforms, Turkish civil code and other laws were aligned with those of Europe. A new Turkish Latin script was adopted in November 1928, and modern fine arts was introduced as well as the organization of university education.
Like Lincoln, Atatürk was charged with forging a united nation out of many disparate pieces, and watching over the reconstruction that followed. For the first time, “Turkey” was born on behalf of Turks, and the term referred to a nation and last state with defined borders established on previously Ottoman soil. The countries each President formed lives today as either the United States of America or the Republic of Turkey.