In the shadows of the three day weekend generally known as Presidents’ Day, maybe it is appropriate to think about what the holiday really represents.
The official name of the holiday is Washington’s Birthday. Officially signed into law in 1880, the holiday originally only applied to the District of Columbia. In 1885, it was expanded to all thirty-eight states as a national holiday. The law served to formalize the celebration of our first President’s birthday, something that had been taking place informally since the late 1700s. (National Archives)
Washington’s birthday is February 22nd, and for many years the holiday was held on that date. In 1971 the holiday was moved to the third Monday in February, partly as an acknowledgment of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday (Feb 12th), and partly to allow Americans to enjoy a three day weekend every year. The name, however, was never changed at the federal level (some states have altered the name to Presidents’ Day).
George Washington will forever be remembered in American history for his many accomplishments. What makes him even greater are the precedents he set that have left an indelible mark on our way of life.
He knew that being first – the nation’s first Commander in Chief, and later, the first President – carried with it enormous responsibilities. In a letter to James Madison he wrote, “As the first of every thing, in our situation will serve to establish a Precedent, it is devoutly wished on my part, that these precedents may be fixed on true principles.” (whitehouse.gov)
Civilian control over the military: Being appointed by the Continental Congress as Commander in Chief, Washington could have easily established himself as King or Commander-for-life. Instead, he doggedly followed the orders of Congress, and at the end of hostilities, he resigned his commission, establishing the precedent of military subservience to the civilian government.
Military action against the government: In the waning days of the revolution, rumors began to circulate that Congress was going broke, and that Army pay and pensions might be revoked. An anonymous letter was circulated within the ranks calling for either abandonment of the fight en masse, or, more ominously, outright insurrection. Washington heard about the letter, and addressed the Army directly. He appealed to the soldiers’ sense of honor and duty, reminding them that the young country needed their loyalty. His emotional speech dissolved the initiative.
Two terms for President. Washington refused to run for a third term in 1796, establishing a precedent followed unofficially by all his successors except Franklin Roosevelt. The two term limit was later formalized by the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution.
Mr. President. George Washington rejected many suggested titles (such as “His Excellency”), and preferred to be called Mr. President, in an effort to distance himself from any resemblance to European monarchies.
The list goes on and on. Virtually every action George Washington took in uniform or as President set a precedent for future generations. When viewed in hindsight two centuries later, perhaps his most enduring legacy was his insistence on putting the country first, before self. As stated in Mount Vernon’s website, “George Washington has been acclaimed for 200 years as the indispensable man of our Revolution. But he secured immortality by insisting that he was dispensable. He asserted that the cause of liberty was larger than any individual.”
He really was first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen. Happy birthday, Mr. President.