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President’s Day and the Men Behind It

President’s Day is celebrated on the third Monday in February, but in the true tradition of democracy, Americans haven’t always agreed exactly who to honor on the date. The current federal holiday is designated to honor all American presidents; however, for a majority of Americans, the emphasis of this holiday is decidedly on George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

According to the Gregorian calendar that is most commonly used today, George Washington was born on February 22, 1732. But according to the Julian calendar that was used in England until 1752, his birth date was February 11th. Back in the 1790s, Americans were split – some celebrated his birthday on February 11th and some on February 22nd.

Washington’s birthday was celebrated almost immediately after his death. Then when Lincoln oversaw the preservation of the Union, many soon came to honor his birthday with special recognition as well. Until 1968, February 12th was recognized as a public holiday in honor of Lincoln and February 22nd was observed as a federal public holiday to honor the birthday of George Washington.

Then, in 1968 the 90th Congress determined to fashion a uniform system of federal holidays on Mondays. The law took effect in 1971, and as a result, Washington’s Birthday holiday was changed to the third Monday in February.

Since this declaration there has been a good deal of dissent as to whom to honor and what to name the federal holiday. Some citizens were concerned about using Washington’s identity due to the fact that the third Monday in February never falls on his actual birthday. There was no quick agreement for the actual name of the holiday because many believed not all presidents rate this special recognition.

The initial result was an official holiday with no official title. Even though Congress had created a uniform federal holiday law, there was not a uniform holiday title agreement among the individual states. Some states, like Tennessee, California, Texas, Idaho, rejected the federal holiday title and renamed their state holiday “President’s Day.”

Since then, “President’s Day” became a marketing phenomenon with advertisers seeking to capitalize on the opportunity for three-day or week-long sales. Bills were introduced in 1999 in both the U.S. House (HR-1363) and Senate (S-978) to specify that the legal public holiday once referred to as Washington’s Birthday be “officially” called by that name again. Both bills died in committee.

While the media and many states now recognize this coming Monday with the official title, “President’s Day” there is, in fact, no so such federal title. Regardless of the confusion over the title, there is a lasting reason the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln remain at the center of the Parthenon of American greats.

No figure loomed greater than George Washington throughout the nineteenth century. In honor of the man who commanded the Continental Army and led the American colonies to victory in the Revolutionary War, served as first President of the United States of America, and earned the title “The Father of Our Country,” Washington’s birthday, February 22nd, was celebrated with more patriotic passion than any holiday with the exception of the Fourth of July. Though it was already recognized by all the states, Washington’s Birthday was made official in 1885 when President Chester Alan Arthur signed a bill establishing it as a federal holiday.

George Washington‘s importance to American history is immeasurable. His internal character and military ability combined to form the prefect figure to lead untrained and often disorganized troops to fight for the freedom of a new country.  On numerous occasions all that kept the Continental Army together was his tenacity, determination to improve, and sheer charisma. When his troops were at their end, he somehow instilled in them the will to keep fighting.

Washington made a number of military errors, but he was first to admit it. Not once is there record of him shirking his duty. When he made mistakes, he did all in his ability to learn from them, move on, and use them to prepare for the next battle or campaign.

Our first president’s foray into politics was in the Virginia House of Burgesses from 1759 to 1774. At first he was reluctant to oppose England, believing differences between it and the colonies could be settled. But in a few short years, he grew disheartened with prospects of peaceful reconciliation and recognized that war was the probable outcome.

He was present at both the First and Second Continental Congress but did not actively participate. But in 1775, when he was chosen as Commander of the Army, Washington assumed a stage of importance to this country that he would hold until years after his death.

When faced with taking back territory lost to the British, he never faltered. It was late in the evening on Christmas Day (while the Hessians were partying) that Washington and his bedraggled troops crossed the Delaware. That event and others have been part of school children’s lore ever since.

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The significance of George Washington to the cause of freedom goes far beyond his skill at managing armies and fighting battles. For him, leading this nation amounted to a holy cause with His Creator as the real General. His character is revealed in a letter to his officers.

The General is sorry to be informed that the foolish and wicked practice of profane cursing and swearing, a vice hitherto little known in our American Army is growing into fashion. He hopes that the officers will, by example as well as influence, endeavor to check it and that both they and the men will reflect that we can little hope of the blessing of Heaven on our army if we insult it by our impiety and folly. Added to this it is a vice so mean and low without any temptation that every man of sense and character detests and despises it.

In some ways Abraham Lincoln and George Washington could have been no more different. Washington was a wealthy land owner and military man. Lincoln was raised in poverty, mostly self-educated, and owned little even upon becoming President. But in the vital role of leadership, the two were cut from the same cloth.

Lincoln rose to the top through sheer ambition and hard work. He had almost no education. He spent less than twelve months attending schools as a youth growing up on the frontier. Each one was very small, and the lessons were most often taught orally—these schools thus got the nickname “blab” schools. Later, when he moved to New Salem, Illinois, he began to study law books in his spare time. In New Salem he earned the nickname “Honest Abe.” He became a lawyer in 1836, although he never attended college.

Lincoln was a very successful attorney with a large practice prior to his election as president in 1860. Additionally, Lincoln served four terms in the Illinois State House of Representatives and one term in Congress.

He outlasted extraordinary pressures during the long and bitter Civil War. Unlike Washington, Lincoln enjoyed something quite short of unanimous approval. He put up with and replaced generals who were unready to fight in addition to dealing with bickering among his Cabinet members, opposition from groups like the Copperhead, assassination threats, and huge loss of life on the battlefields. But Lincoln persevered, not giving in to pressures and ending the war early. A lesser man would have given in and stopped the war before the goals had been achieved. Lincoln was not a lesser man.

The Emancipation Proclamation didn’t immediately free any slaves because it only applied to territories not under Lincoln’s control. The actual fact is that legal freedom for all slaves in the United States did not come until the final passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in December of 1865. Lincoln was a strong supporter of the amendment, but he was assassinated before its final enactment.

Abraham Lincoln was not a perfect man. There is no doubt he suspended basic Constitutional rights during the war and some vilify him for that today. But history remembers him as a humble man faced with situations under which most other presidents would have crumbled.

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During his time as President, he championed domestic policies such as the Homestead Act. The act allowed poor people in the East to obtain land in the West. He signed the Morrill Act designating aid in the establishment of agricultural and mechanical colleges in all states. He also signed legislation for the National Banking Act, which established a national currency and provided for the creation of a network of national banks. Outside of the War effort, his crowning achievement might well have been the bill he signed to charter the first transcontinental railroad.

Lincoln’s most famous speech was the Gettysburg Address. In that hastily written address, written in his own hand, the president saw the Civil War as an experiment—a test as to whether this nation could survive the most critical of trials. Lincoln said that the people who were still alive must dedicate themselves to finish the task that the dead soldiers had begun, which was to save the nation so it would not perish from the earth.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Lincoln’s leadership style still serves as role model to those who say they want to be statesmen today. Every politician’s character is measured against Lincoln’s – most falling short. He is probably the most quoted President of all because he is still seen as perhaps the wisest.

Lincoln was a benevolent leader in contrast to participatory (democratic), oppressive (authoritarian), or laissez-faire (hands-off) leaders. When advisors disagreed with him or among themselves, his leadership style often involved telling a story to demonstrate his point. And, because that style often worked, people praised him for it.

He could virtually disarm his enemies with his moralistic and skillful leadership. Lincoln possessed qualities of kindness and compassion combined with wisdom. Because of this one of his nicknames was “Father Abraham.” Like George Washington, Lincoln demonstrated an extraordinary strength of character, but Lincoln’s unique style of leadership involved telling stories which explained his actions and influenced others to follow his lead.

In February 2009 a poll of sixty-five historians was taken. They were asked to rank the presidents in ten categories ranging from economic management to public persuasion to international relations to moral authority. Abraham Lincoln ranked first, while George Washington was second.

The third Monday in February may not have an official title for now. Perhaps men like Ronald Reagan will warrant inclusion (his ranking rises every year) but for now, President’s Day is still very much Washington’s and Lincoln’s Birthday.

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