Today in America we celebrate what has come to be known as Presidents’ Day. Officially, however, the holiday is still officially called “Washington’s Birthday” by the federal government. President George Washington’s Birthday was first recognized as a holiday in 1880 (but only in the District of Columbia). It was made an official federal holiday for the rest of the country in 1885. Although Washington’s Julian style birth date is 22 February, the holiday honoring him was moved to the third Monday in February as part of 1971’s Uniform Monday Holiday Act so people could enjoy more three-day holidays. The holiday is an excellent time to look back and honor a man who acted with dignity and honor while serving as President. He could have been President-for-Life; but, in his wisdom, he decided to step aside. In making his decision, he stated, “I am influenced by no diminution of zeal for your future interest, no deficiency of grateful respect for your past kindness, but am supported by a full conviction that the step is compatible with both.”
Like most men who rise to the top of their chosen fields, Washington had no shortage of self-esteem. Yet, unlike some of his successors, he demonstrated a public modesty and humility befitting an elected official whose primary purpose is to the serve the people who elected him. In his farewell address, he stated, “In the discharge of this trust, I will only say that I have, with good intentions, contributed towards the organization and administration of the government the best exertions of which a very fallible judgment was capable.” He continued:
“Not unconscious in the outset of the inferiority of my qualifications, experience in my own eyes, perhaps still more in the eyes of others, has strengthened the motives to diffidence of myself; and every day the increasing weight of years admonishes me more and more that the shade of retirement is as necessary to me as it will be welcome. Satisfied that if any circumstances have given peculiar value to my services, they were temporary, I have the consolation to believe that, while choice and prudence invite me to quit the political scene, patriotism does not forbid it. In looking forward to the moment which is intended to terminate the career of my public life, my feelings do not permit me to suspend the deep acknowledgment of that debt of gratitude which I owe to my beloved country for the many honors it has conferred upon me; still more for the steadfast confidence with which it has supported me; and for the opportunities I have thence enjoyed of manifesting my inviolable attachment, by services faithful and persevering, though in usefulness unequal to my zeal. If benefits have resulted to our country from these services, let it always be remembered to your praise, and as an instructive example in our annals, that under circumstances in which the passions, agitated in every direction, were liable to mislead, amidst appearances sometimes dubious, vicissitudes of fortune often discouraging, in situations in which not unfrequently want of success has countenanced the spirit of criticism, the constancy of your support was the essential prop of the efforts, and a guarantee of the plans by which they were effected. Profoundly penetrated with this idea, I shall carry it with me to my grave, as a strong incitement to unceasing vows that heaven may continue to you the choicest tokens of its beneficence; that your union and brotherly affection may be perpetual; that the free Constitution, which is the work of your hands, may be sacredly maintained; that its administration in every department may be stamped with wisdom and virtue; that, in fine, the happiness of the people of these States, under the auspices of liberty, may be made complete by so careful a preservation and so prudent a use of this blessing as will acquire to them the glory of recommending it to the applause, the affection, and adoption of every nation which is yet a stranger to it.”
Presidents’ Day honors the “peculiar value” of Washington’s service to a grateful nation. The History Channel notes, “In its original incarnation as Washington’s Birthday, the holiday gained special meaning during the difficulties of the Great Depression, when portraits of George Washington often graced the front pages of newspapers and magazines every February 22. In 1932 the date was used to reinstate the Purple Heart, a military decoration originally created by George Washington to honor soldiers killed or wounded while serving in the armed forces.” The decoration created by Washington was called the Badge of Military Merit and it is recognized as the oldest known United States military decoration still in use. The Badge of Military Merit was not a medal, but a patch. Its reinstatement, on the 200th anniversary of Washington’s birth, was a fitting tribute to the man who conceived it. Today’s incarnation of the Badge, the Purple Heart medal, is adorned with Washington’s likeness. I suspect Washington would be feel honored to be recognized in this way and saddened the medal has had to be awarded so many times in our country’s history.
Following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, who was also born in February, his birthday was also widely observed. The History Channel reports, “Washington and Lincoln still remain the two most recognized leaders, but Presidents’ Day is now popularly seen as a day to recognize the lives and achievements of all of America’s chief executives. Some lawmakers have objected to this view, arguing that grouping George Washington and Abraham Lincoln together with less successful presidents minimizes their legacies. Congressional measures to restore Washington and Lincoln’s individual birthdays were proposed during the early 2000s, but all failed to gain much attention. For its part, the federal government has held fast to the original incarnation of the holiday as a celebration of the country’s first president.” Presidents’ Day is currently known as much for its commercial sales campaigns as it is for the Presidents its honors. Washington and Lincoln have become commercial icons. Nevertheless, we would all do well to take a moment to appreciate what Washington and Lincoln did for this country and recommit ourselves to preserving the union to which they committed their lives.