For me, Presidents Day (or Presidents’ Day, depending on whom you talk to) has always been one of “those” holidays that’s just on the edge of my awareness, like Columbus Day and Veterans’ Day, I’m sad to say, because I didn’t know the history and purpose of it, and because “nothing much happens.” We don’t get it off like Memorial Day or Labor Day, and we don’t have special food like on Valentine’s Day and St. Patrick’s Day. It was always just a vaguely patriotic holiday that was way less fun than the barbeques and fireworks of the Fourth of July. But, this year, I had the brilliant idea to look up Presidents Day. Genius.
It turns out Presidents Day is the unofficial name (hence the multiple spellings). The proper title is George Washington’s Birthday, and began as a commemoration of the “Father of Our Country” on his actual birthday, February 22.
In an interesting side note, when Washington was born, England was still using the Julian calendar, as opposed to the Gregorian calendar we now use. In the old calendar, Washington was born on February 11, 1731 instead of February 22, 1732.
After Washington’s death in 1799, Americans wanted to remember and celebrate George Washington as one of the nation’s Founding Fathers and their first president. So, people began celebrating Washington’s Birthday the following year, 1800. It was made a legal holiday in 1879, but the law didn’t specify that employees outside of Washington D.C. were to be paid for their day off. It wasn’t until 1885 that Congress finally changed the law so all federal employees were paid for the holiday.
Washington’s Birthday was celebrated as its own holiday until 1968 when Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, taking effect in 1971, which shifted several of the federal holidays to certain Mondays instead of specific dates in order to create more three-day weekends for employees and to promote the holiday sales which had sprung up around the holidays. Part of the rationale was also that Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, around February 12, had been a long-standing holiday in certain states, especially Illinois, so moving Washington’s Birthday to the third Monday of February put it between the two presidents’ actual birthdays. The name of the holiday, however, was never changed. It still is officially known as Washington’s Birthday, but ironically, it’ll never fall on his actual birthday.
Two short generations after Washington’s death, the country he spent his life building and protecting became embroiled in civil war. Spurred by the fear of losing their nation, a thousand Philadelphia citizens petitioned Congress to recognize Washington’s 130th birthday in February, 1862, by reading his Farewell Address. Secretary of Senate John W. Forney was chosen to read the address, which, oddly enough, Washington himself never publicly delivered. It was published in the Philadelphia Daily American Advertizer on September 19, 1796, and then in other papers across the nation. The reading of Washington’s Farewell Address didn’t become an annual event, though, until 1893 and now, a senator is chosen every year to read Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address.
After reading through Washington’s address, I’m disappointed that I was never really aware of it or the traditional reading of it. As the Senate clearly still believes, it’s a vitally important piece of American history. I think it’s critical for us Americans to understand where we’ve come from as a people and a nation.
The Farewell Address
George Washington begins his address by explaining that he has decided not to run for a third term but to retire from active political life, but he stresses that he still has the same patriotic fervor for his country. While he worked hard to serve his country, he humbly recognizes his own human weakness saying, “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.” This kind of humility is pretty rare, and, I think, is a hallmark of great leaders like Washington.
After explaining his position, Washington begins exhorting his fellow citizens to love, serve and preserve the Union, “your Union ought to be considered as a main prop of your liberty, and that the love of the one ought to endear to you the preservation of the other… the continuance of the Union [is] a primary object of patriotic desire.” This patriotic desire is one of the first things you realize when reading Washington’s address. He participated in, even lead, the Revolutionary War and the new government for the sake of the United States and the citizens of our great country.
He goes on to explain that the disintegration of the Union he risked his life to build is one of the primary dangers he fears for his country. Part of protecting the United States, Washington argues, is having great respect for the U.S. Constitution “which at any time exists, until changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory upon all. The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established government.” If we Americans don’t obey and revere our constitution, Washington admonishes, our United States will fall apart.
Besides honoring the constitution, Washington provides a stern warning against becoming entrenched in different political parties, “the alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation on the ruins of public liberty.” Washington is here urging Americans to put aside personal desires and aspirations in order to remember that our country was built by all citizens, not just a few people. He believes we should never let one person gain ultimate control over the entire government because this can only lead to the dissolution of liberty and peace.
If you stop and reflect for a minute on what Washington’s doing here, you can see the intense love he has for his country. He is voluntarily refusing a third term because he knows he is getting older and weaker, and he doesn’t want to be unable to properly serve the nation. His love and concern for his country runs so deep, though, that he wrote a final note to the country, trying to help it avoid danger and continue on its path to freedom and prosperity. For Washington, these words are not ideals to be talked about a couple times a year on certain holidays, they are some of the guiding principles of his life, and he was willing to sacrifice anything to preserve and promote them.
Washington moves on to discuss four other things the U.S. must do to stay strong and free. He argues for upholding religion and morality because, he asks, “where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion.” Along with religion and morality, Washington continues, is fostering public education, something that is paramount to preserving the integrity of the Union. The citizenry, he explains, cannot make good decisions if they are ignorant, “in proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.”
Washington’s last two points concern the wellbeing of the country on a more national level. Staying out of debt, he explains, is not only necessary for stability and prosperity, but it involves an aspect of responsibility toward future generations as well, “avoiding likewise the accumulation of debt, not only by shunning occasions of expense, but by vigorous exertions in time of peace to discharge the debts which unavoidable wars may have occasioned, not ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear.”
Besides debt, which is a kind of slavery, one of the worst threats to national stability, as Washington sees it, is improper relationships with other nations, “the nation which indulges towards another an habitual hatred, or an habitual fondness, is in some degree a slave.” What Washington argues for instead is, outside of extraordinary emergencies, to maintain trade relations with all nations but avoid political ones, “the great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is, in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop.”
U.S. domestic and foreign policy has changed a great deal since Washington’s time, but I always find it interesting and informative to go back and read some of the documents that helped form our country. I would highly suggest reading Washington’s Farewell Address on Presidents Day this year. Take a moment to think about the wonderful country we live in, where we came from, where we are and be grateful for the incredible gift we have been given.
If you know of any other Presidents Day facts or traditions, please share them!