The History of Presidents’ Day

Another holiday, another deep dive into History. Today we’re celebrating Washington’s Birthday, before his Birthday. We’re also celebrating all the Presidents we’ve had over the past two hundred years or so. Let’s take a trip through History.

 

George Washington

We could spend weeks posting about our first President. He began life as a humble surveyor in Virginia. By 1752 he would survey over 60,000 acres and continued the trade throughout his life. For an era of riding on horseback and careful hand measurement, this was no small feat. Washington’s strong work ethic would eventually see him appointed a Military Adjutant in the 1750s.

Washington’s first military action would come as a Major in the Virginia Militia during the French and Indian War. His service would eventually see him appointed the a Colonel and the commander of the Virginia Militia. Despite his service the British Army would refuse to grant him Officers’ status and pay in their ranks. Washington was a colonial soldier through and through.

There would be a brief, peaceful period for Washington after his retirement in 1758. He would go on to get married, run his plantation, and slowly get involved with politics. He would serve as a representative in the Virginia House of Burgesses as an outspoken critic of the British, their taxes, and eventually would try to ban British Imports outright.

At the start of the Revolutionary War, Washington approached the Continental Congress in full military uniform. He wanted to serve, but did not seek to be our commander. Congress offered him command of the Continental Army and he could not refuse. He wrote to his wife “it was utterly out of my power to refuse this appointment without exposing my Character to such censures as would have reflected dishonour upon myself, and given pain to my friends.” As a General, he would lead the Army, train the Army, and refused to surrender. There were retreats, but never surrender. The General refused to be paid for the war, at times he even stepped in to pay the soldiers himself when Congress was too busy bickering to pay them.

By the war’s end, General Washington was a national figure and a hero. He would attempt to retire, but we needed him even after the war. The first government of the United States was built on the Articles of Confederation. By 1787 these were deemed a failure. Washington was reluctantly taken to Philadelphia to help with the Constitution. His experience with the Continental Congress during the war had made him a firm support of a Federal Government. His presence, and support of the Constitution granted heavy wait for it’s passage. Without him, there probably would be no Constitution.

Wsahington’s service would not stop there. Congress more or less twisted his arm into being our first president. His eight years at the head of the country would establish our way of Government even to today. He distanced the government from any connection to royalty and the royal courts. He would not be called a king, he directed that he be called Mr.President, if anything. His only reason for even accepting pay as President was to enable future Presidents to be the poorest people in the nation. Wealth would not preclude political office under his watch.

President Washington would step down in 1797, setting the unspoken rule that no man should be President for more than two terms. We called on him again anyway. Washington would spend the last of his life on his plantation and continuing to work with the Army to ensure our future defense and safety. He would die in 1799 after working in snow, sleet, and hail; remaining cold and wet at dinner; and returning to work in the snow after illness began to take hold. One of our greatest leaders died not in battle, but of a cold and the poor medical practices of his time.

 

The President’s Day

After Washington’s Death, there would be numerous celebrations and national events on his birthday. On February 22, 1800 there would be a national day of remembrance. The year he would’ve turned one hundred there was more celebration and remembrance. There was the Washington Monument started in 1848 that brought still more celebration. It would take until 1885 for the celebration of Washington to become a National Holiday. Washington’s Birthday was the fifth National Holiday. It would sit among Christmas, New Years, the Fourth of July, and Thanksgiving as the only National Holidays at this time.  Few people have had such honors.

In the 1960’s Washington’s Birthday would slowly change to be Presidents’ Day, focused not on our first, but all Presidents. Washington’s Birthday would be celebrated with Presidents’ Day on the Monday before his birthday, part of a Federal effort to make more 3-Day weekends.

The typical celebrations are pretty minimal, despite the importance of the various Presidents. The public school systems focus on this time to study the presidents, historical groups stage reenactments, and big businesses use it to advertise massive sales.

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