Presidents’ Day

Every third Monday of February, the United States celebrates Washington’s Birthday, also referred to as Presidents’ Day. It is a day commemorating all presidents, particularly the first one, George Washington. It is referred to by both names because some states celebrate Presidents’ Day but not Washington’s Birthday, while most have merged the two. Abraham Lincoln is also a president of focus due to his historical significance and having a birthday also in February.

How it is Celebrated

  • Educational events, such as lectures or lessons surrounding Washington, Lincoln, and other presidents.
  • Museum exhibits
  • Concerts
  • Wreath-laying
  • Dinners
  • Events celebrating the life of Washington and other presidents. Some take place at the site of presidential monuments in Washington D.C.

Holiday History

Washington’s Birthday was first celebrated in the late 19th century, officially becoming a holiday in 1885. It was first celebrated on February 22, Washington’ actual birthday, but was moved to February’s third Monday in 1971. Legally, the holiday’s federal name is Washington’s Birthday, although many states have policies designating it otherwise.

About George Washington

George Washington was born on February 22, 1732, into a wealthy family in Virginia who owned a tobacco plantation. His father and two siblings died during his upbringing. He was educated by a combination of private tutors and Anglican schooling. Washington’s connections allowed him, at age 17, to become Culpeper County’s surveyor. During this time, he started many land investment projects, including buying land in the Shenandoah Valley, and caught smallpox, which left his skin scarred.

After the death of his brother Lawrence, who was the militia leader of Virginia, George took on some of his responsibilities under the title of major. However, Washington’s early success did not depend entirely upon his connections—he was physically intimidating at around six feet tall, which is above average for men of the time. However, Washington also showed an aptitude for military command, proving himself with his military leadership during the French and Indian War.

Washington was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses in in 1758 and married Martha Custis in 1759 while increasing his landholdings through purchases and land bounties from the French and Indian War. In the wake of the Stamp Act and Townshend Acts during the 1760s, Washington supported opposition to British policies and the boycott of English goods, chairing the Fairfax Resolves and representing Virginia in the First Continental Congress. In 1775, Congress gave Washington the position of commander-in-chief of the Continental Army.

After the Revolution, support to appoint Washington as the first president was overwhelming, organizing the new government position around Washington’s abilities, even allowing him to cultivate the position’s powers once he was in office in 1789. He is the only president in history to win all electoral votes and established many presidential customs, including referring to the President as “Mr. President,” the customary but not maximum (at the time) two term presidency. He also established the location of Washington D.C.

Washington delivered his Farewell Address in 1796 and retired in 1797, emerging in 1799 to take the position of senior office of the United States Army, albeit much less passionately than his earlier efforts, passing off much of the work to Alexander Hamilton. In 1799, Washington was riding on his estate on horseback in severe cold and rain, catching a sickness and dying in his home a few days later.

About Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809, in a one-room cabin located in Hardin Country, Kentucky.

Abe’s first political attempts occurred in 1832, running for a position in the Illinois General Assembly. Despite his popularity, Lincoln lost, most likely due to being uneducated and not well connected. He continued on to hold the position of postmaster and county surveyor of New Salem. Following this win, his self-education was enough to admit him to the state bar, moving to practice law in Springfield, Illinois. His career with the House of Representatives lasted four terms. During this time, he affiliated with the Whig party. Many of his legal cases involved transportation issues, including riverboats and other river travel issues.

A major political motivation for Lincoln was his anti-slavery stance. He was not necessarily abolitionist in the technical sense of the term, as he believed many abolitionist practices were not effective in solving the problem. After taking a break from his political career to focus on practicing law, he returned to politics. His initial efforts opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act. His rival, Stephen A. Douglas, was instrumental in instituting popular sovereignty within this law, which allowed new territories to choose a stance on slavery themselves. One of his first famous speeches, called the Peoria Speech, talked of his hatred of the act and slavery itself. Although Lincoln personally despised the institution of slavery, politically, he advocated abolishing the extension of slavery rather than the practice as a whole. This placed him as a moderate on the issue of slavery.

In 1858, Lincoln gave his House Divided Speech after the Republican Party nominated him for U.S. Senate. The speech’s theme centered on Lincoln’s belief that the country would not prosper if it continued to be so divided over the issue of slavery. The speech launched both Lincoln and the issue of slavery further into the spotlight. In May of 1960, the Republicans nominated Lincoln for president, with Douglas as his opposition.

Lincoln won the first presidency for the Republican Party, who presented Lincoln as a candidate of humble and hardworking origins. Following his election, southern states began to secede, foreseeing a disagreement with Lincoln over slavery and other Civil War issues. Lincoln continued self-education on military strategies.

Notable acts by Lincoln during the Civil War, other than acting as commander-in-chief, included the Emancipation Proclamation and the Confiscation Act, which banned slavery on federal territory, and the Gettysburg Address in July of 1863. In 1864, Lincoln won reelection against General George McClellan. After Lincoln signed the 13th amendment in January, abolishing slavery, on April 9, 1865, Robert E. Lee surrendered, ending the Civil War. During Lincoln’s reconstruction efforts, he was assassinated on April 11, 1865.

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