American celebrated President’s Day this past week, as we have every third Monday in February since 1968, when Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, to enable Americans a host of three-day weekends. But why February? Why not October, when six of our 45 presidents were born?
The answer may surprise you.
When I was a kid growing up in America’s heartland, we celebrated two holidays in February, for two of our greatest presidents. February 12 was Lincoln’s day and February 22 was the birthday of George Washington. It all got squished together in 1968, when a change was made in Congress, to designate Washington’s birthday as President’s Day. Special deference is paid to our first president by having the Senate read Washington’s farewell address on the Senate floor on the third Monday in February. Abraham Lincoln’s birthday has been folded into this holiday, but no mention is made of the other two presidents born during this month–Ronald Reagan and William Henry Harrison. President’s Day is now viewed as a day to celebrate all forty-five of America’s presidents. But since for years prior to the Uniform Holiday Act, America paid homage to both Washington and Lincoln, it’s worth spending a bit of time to recognize the contributions of these two men who led the country through its most turbulent periods.
Long before Washington took over the reins of the fledgling new country, he had seen much of the land in his role as a surveyor. The eastern portion of America is dotted with signs signifying “George Washington Slept Here.” George Washington grew up in the Tidewater region of Virginia. His early career was influenced by a British appointee, William Fairfax, who thought so highly of George that he sent him on his first surveying appointment when he was only sixteen. He gained his surveyor’s license a year later, from the College of William and Mary and made numerous excursions into the Shenandoah Valley for the next three years.
Beginning in 1753, Washington became a soldier and took part in the French and Indian War, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He established a camp at Great Meadows, called Fort Necessity, and established his reputation for bravery.
However, his inexperience with warfare prompted a defeat, for which he was blamed. Instead of taking the punishment of a demotion, he resigned his commission. He later signed on again with the British forces, under the command of General Braddock, and rose to the position of colonel and commander-in-chief of the Virginia forces in 1755. He eventually rose to the rank of honorary brigadier general by the time he resigned from military duty in 1758. He left with knowledge of British fighting tactics and a large measure of self-confidence, which held him in good stead during his command of the Continental Army. The Continental Congress had created the Continental Army in 1775 and unanimously place the mantle of responsibility squarely on the shoulders of a 43-year-old George Washington. He led the Army until the war ended in 1783 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris and retired to his Mount Vernon plantation.
His retirement was short-lived, however, since he was persuaded to attend the first Continental Convention in 1787. There, the Constitution of the United States was created, and Washington was elected as our nation’s first president and served in that regard from 1789 to 1797. He was 57 years old when he took office.
Long before Congress noted the special day in February, Americans paid homage to George Washington shortly after his death in 1799. The day quickly became an annual remembrance of our first president. His birthday was originally established as a holiday in 1879. Initially, it was only celebrated in the District of Columbia, but in 1885 the observance was expanded to the entire country. This was the first time a single individual was memorialized by declaring a federal holiday. The second federal holiday in observance of a single person didn’t happen until 1983 with Martin Luther King.
Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809 in a one-room log cabin in Kentucky. His family moved to Illinois in 1830. His formal education was sparse, and he worked as a shopkeeper and postmaster before becoming involved in politics and was elected to the state legislature in 1834 at age 25. Lincoln taught himself law and passed the bar exam in 1836. He moved to Springfield, IL where he practiced law, earning the nickname “Honest Abe.”
He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1846 and served in that capacity until 1849. His strong opposition to slavery forced him back into politics in 1858. He had an unsuccessful bid for senate that year, squaring off against Steven Douglas, a proponent of slavery. He lost the senate race that year, but his public profile grew. In 1860 the Republican party nominated Lincoln as their candidate for president. By the time of his inauguration in March of 1861, seven southern states had already seceded from the union and the stage was set for the Civil War.
Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, freeing all the slaves held in America. His speech at one of the most notable battlefields, Gettysburg, PA, in 1863, expressed his views on the great Civil War and has been widely acclaimed throughout the years. He won reelection in 1864 and his inaugural address in March, 1865 focused on the Reconstruction efforts planned to bring the country back together again. He was killed by an assassin’s bullet only one month later.
Lincoln’s birthday was celebrated in his home state of Illinois but observances in other places was left up to the individual states until the passing of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act.
By the way, the other two faces on Mount Rushmore belong to our nation’s third President Thomas Jefferson and our 26th President Theodore Roosevelt.
Becky Lower’s current work-in-progress focuses on the Revolutionary War in America. It as yet doesn’t have a title, but she’s enjoying imagining herself in the role of her heroine, experiencing the birth of our nation. Visit her blog at www.beckylowerauthor.blogspot.com or her website at https://www.beckylowerauthor.com to keep up with her latest endeavors.