President George Washington’s birthday was celebrated when he was still alive.
By Regis L. Roberts
Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are often noted by historians as being the greatest presidents in this country’s history.
Not only are both of their faces on currency and carved into Mount Rushmore, but they also are recognized on the third Monday of February, when the nation celebrates Presidents Day.
“They just kind of stand out as the top presidents,” history Professor Paul Browning said.
History Lecturer Richard Buitron said the importance of celebrating Washington and Lincoln is that each contributed to the life of the nation.
“When Washington became president, he was holding together a country that was new and a political system that had not yet existed in history,” Buitron said. “When Lincoln became president, he already had the system, and it was under attack in a way it had not been under attack before.”
Buitron referred to the two distinct challenges each president was presented in preserving a fledgling country.
Washington, who was the first president of the United States, beginning in 1789, was in a unique situation as leader of this upstart nation.
He had to define the role of the presidency, and Browning said Washington set many precedents that are still followed today, such as the relationship between the president and the Senate as an advising body.
Lincoln’s predicament came when the Southern states that became the Confederacy seceded Feb. 9, 1861, forming the Confederate States of America, just after Lincoln was elected president. Lincoln celebrated his birthday, Feb. 12, knowing he would have to address with the disjointed Union during his upcoming inaugural. “Plainly, the central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy,” Lincoln said in his first inaugural address March 4, 1861.
Buitron said Lincoln had the difficult task of preserving the Union nearly destroyed by a war that claimed about 600,000 lives.
“There was not a community in America that was not affected in some way by the Civil War,” Buitron said.
Browning said Lincoln had to make many hard decisions that may not have been necessary and that were accomplished by bending the structure of the Constitution.
For example, during the Civil War, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, the right that allows prisoners to know and have hearings on charges against them.
Buitron said it was only after Lincoln’s assassination on April 14, 1865, by John Wilkes Booth in Ford’s Theatre that he became recognized as a great president. Lincoln was shot on Good Friday while watching “Our American Cousin,” and died the next morning, April 15.
Buitron, who is from Illinois, said celebrating Lincoln’s birthday there, where he served in the Legislature for eight years, was a no-brainer.
In Southern states, however, he said people celebrated the lives of Gen. Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy.
Celebrating Lincoln’s birthday was a Northern thing to do, he said, until Lincoln became recognized universally as a national hero.
Washington’s birthday, on the other hand, was celebrated even while he was alive, although it was not an official federal holiday. President Chester A. Arthur signed the bill that made it a holiday in 1885.
This was because Washington had a “personality cult” surrounding him, Buitron said.
He described Washington as a “statue in search of a pedestal.”
He said people tend to forget that Washington was a skilled politician, trading on his prestige to get things done.
Despite the fact that Washington was beloved during his time, not much is known about him.
This is partly because his wife, Martha, destroyed most of his personal correspondence after he died of pneumonia Dec. 14, 1799, Buitron said.
His legendary stature and the lack of a complete history led to the creation of myths about Washington’s life, he said.
The story of Washington chopping down a cherry tree when he was a boy and confessing to it by saying “I cannot tell a lie,” was a fabricated story created by Mason Weems, an early biographer of Washington.
As it is celebrated in America, President’s Day as a federal holiday does not actually exist. House Resolution 15951 was passed June 28, 1968, recognizing the third Monday in February as being the official celebration of Washington’s birthday.
The act, sometimes referred to as the “Uniform Monday Holiday Act,” or merely the “Monday Holiday Act,” was designed to “provide for uniform annual observances of certain legal public holidays on Mondays.”
The act specifically lists “Washington’s Birthday, the third Monday in February,” but does not mention Lincoln. The act, which also established the date for Columbus Day, was enacted Jan. 1, 1971.
“There got to be too many holidays in one month, but I guess it’s up to whatever institution you’re in whether they give the day off or not,” Browning said.
The day, he said, is more than just the celebration of Washington and Lincoln, but of all presidents.
Presidents Day has become a time for historians to debate the legacy of past presidents, with Washington and Lincoln coming out on top, he said..
For his money, Browning said Washington and Lincoln are definitely the top two presidents. He said Franklin D. Roosevelt would also be in his top five for his work in pulling the nation out of the Great Depression and for his leadership during World War II. Buitron also thinks Roosevelt is deserving of recognition for the same reasons.
While Browning does not recall any debate about adding a president for recognition during Presidents Day, Buitron said he remembered debates about former President Ronald Reagan being added to Presidents Day. Reagan was president from 1981-1989 and died in 2005.