Today is Presidents’ Day, a federal holiday that originally was a day to celebrate the birthday of one president — the first President of the United States, George Washington.
By the mid-1980s, with a push from advertisers, the term “Presidents’ Day” began its public appearance. Although Lincoln’s birthday, February 12, was never a federal holiday, approximately a dozen state governments have officially renamed their Washington’s Birthday observances as “Presidents’ Day”, “Washington and Lincoln Day”, or other such designations. In Washington’s home state of Virginia, however, the holiday is still legally known as “George Washington Day.”
By changing Washington’s Day into a generic Presidents’ Day, America has diluted and forgotten this day’s significance. Today, Presidents’ Day is better known for being a day in which many stores, especially car dealers, hold sales.
This post is a reminder of what Presidents’ Day originally was about and of the kind of man America’s first president was.
In a letter to Dr. Walter Jones in 1814, Thomas Jefferson, America’s third President (1801-1809), wrote this about the first President of the newly independent United States of America:
“[H]is was the singular destiny and merit, of leading the armies of his country successfully through an arduous war, for the establishment of its independence; of conducting its councils through the birth of a government, new in its forms and principles, until it had settled down into a quite and orderly train; and of scrupulously obeying the laws through the whole of his career, civil and military, of which the history of the world furnishes no other example.”
George Washington was the commander of the Continental Army in the American Revolutionary War from 1775 to 1783. He never used his command for his own advantage. Washington even rebuked his men when they suggested that he be king or that the army assert its control over the civilian authorities. As Commander in Chief, Washington demonstrated his respect for the rule of law by his consistent deference to the elected Continental Congress.
When he ended his service at the end of the war, he resigned his commission in 1783 and retired to private life at his plantation in Mount Vernon, thereby proving King George III wrong. George III had asked what Washington would do after the war and was told of rumors that he would return to his farm, prompting the King to state, “if he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”
Washington presided over the Philadelphia Convention that drafted the United States Constitution in 1787. Washington was elected the first president, unanimously by the Electoral College, something that has never been repeated in American history.
Washington belonged to no political party and served as America’s first President from April 30, 1789 to March 4, 1797. After two terms Washington thought it was important that he step aside. He believed that a peaceful transition of power to a newly elected president was necessary before his death. He feared that if he died in office and the vice-president ascended to the presidency, it would appear too much like an heir ascending to the throne after the death of a king.
Washington’s farewell address was a primer on republican virtue and a stern warning against partisanship, sectionalism, and involvement in foreign wars. When Washington stepped aside at the end of his second term, George III said that Washington’s retirement from the presidency along with his earlier resignation of Commander in Chief, “placed him in a light the most distinguished of any man living,” and that his relinquishing power made him “the greatest character of the age.”
Washington died in 1799. Henry Lee, delivering the funeral oration, declared Washington “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen”. Historical scholars consistently rank him as one of America’s greatest presidents. [Sources here and here.]
Tears streamed down my face as I wrote this post.
We the People are political orphans. Where have all the good presidents gone?
In their place is a man who picks his nose on live T.V. and a First Lady who lets snot dribble from her nose while delivering a speech to America’s governors.
I will not sully this remembrance of George Washington with those images. Click here to see who we now have in the White House.