Presidents Day 2019

Stephen DeAngelis

February 18, 2019

Presidents’ Day is provides retailers with another holiday sales opportunity with campaigns often exploiting pictures of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. The actual name of the federal holiday is Washington’s Birthday. The editors at The Old Farmers’ Almanac explain, “Contrary to popular belief, the observed federal holiday is actually called ‘Washington’s Birthday.’ Neither Congress nor the President has ever stipulated that the name of the holiday observed as Washington’s Birthday be changed to Presidents’ Day. Additionally, Congress has never declared a national holiday binding in all states and each state decides its own legal holidays. This is why there are some calendar discrepancies when it comes to this holiday.”[1] There is also some confusion, thanks to the switch from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar, about the actual date of George Washington’s birthday. Washington’s Gregorian calendar birthday is 22 February, he was born on 11 February 1732 according to the Julian calendar, which was in use at the time of his birth. Congress eliminated any confusion about which date to honor him on by establishing the third Monday in February as the official day. This was done as part of 1971’s Uniform Monday Holiday Act so that people could enjoy more three-day holiday weekends. Abraham Lincoln is also generally honored on this day since his birthday also falls in February (on the 12th to be precise).

Washington: The reluctant president

George Washington is the only president ever to be elected by unanimous vote of the Electoral College. Editors of the Smithsonian Magazine note, “On February 4, 1789, the 69 members of the Electoral College made George Washington the only chief executive to be unanimously elected. Congress was supposed to make the choice official that March but could not muster a quorum until April. The reason — bad roads — suggests the condition of the country Washington would lead.”[2] Historian Ron Chernow records that Washington, unlike more recent presidents, did not seek the office nor was he sure he wanted it. He writes, “The Congressional delay in certifying George Washington’s election as president only allowed more time for doubts to fester as he considered the herculean task ahead. He savored his wait as a welcome ‘reprieve,’ he told his former comrade in arms and future Secretary of War Henry Knox, adding that his ‘movements to the chair of government will be accompanied with feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution.’ His ‘peaceful abode’ at Mount Vernon, his fears that he lacked the requisite skills for the presidency, the ‘ocean of difficulties’ facing the country — all gave him pause on the eve of his momentous trip to New York. In a letter to his friend Edward Rutledge, he made it seem as if the presidency was little short of a death sentence and that, in accepting it, he had given up ‘all expectations of private happiness in this world.'”[3]

Chernow notes that Washington was officially informed of his election by Charles Thomson, the secretary of Congress, who around noon on April 14, 1789, having embraced Washington in the entrance at Mount Vernon, read a letter declaring, “I am honored with the commands of the Senate to wait upon your Excellency with the information of your being elected to the office of President of the United States of America.” To which Washington replied, ““While I realize the arduous nature of the task which is conferred on me and feel my inability to perform it, I wish there may not be reason for regretting the choice. All I can promise is only that which can be accomplished by an honest zeal.” Washington was 57 years of age.

A prescient farewell

Washington may have been a reluctant president; but, he served with honor. Unlike many of his successors, he demonstrated a public modesty and humility befitting an elected official whose primary purpose is to the serve the people who elected him. In his farewell address, he stated, “In the discharge of this trust, 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.” The “discharge of his trust” included keeping the government functioning. The nearly two dozen government shutdowns that have pocked democracy since 1976 would have been anathema to Washington. This conclusion can be drawn from his farewell address in which stated:

“In contemplating the causes which may disturb our Union, it occurs as matter of serious concern that any ground should have been furnished for characterizing parties by geographical discriminations, Northern and Southern, Atlantic and Western; whence designing men may endeavor to excite a belief that there is a real difference of local interests and views. One of the expedients of party to acquire influence within particular districts is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other districts. You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heartburnings which spring from these misrepresentations; they tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection.”

Historians note James Madison, in 1792, provided Washington with a draft farewell address when Washington contemplated retiring after his first term. For his final address, Washington turned to a friend and wordsmith he used extensively during the Revolutionary War, Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton kept a few paragraphs from Madison’s first draft but extensively rewrote most of the address with Washington providing the final edits.[4] The editors of The Old Farmers’ Almanac note, “One of the great traditions followed for decades has been the reading of George Washington’s Farewell Address — which remains an annual event for the Senate to this day. In a sense, Washington’s birthday helps us reflect on not just the first president but also the founding of our nation, the values, and what Washington calls in his Farewell Address, the ‘beloved Constitution and union, as received from the Founders’.” In fact the tradition has been ongoing since 1896. Each year the Senate selects one of its members, alternating parties, to read the speech. Hopefully, members of Congress will listen closely as the farewell address is read today and put aside divisive party politics envisioned by Washington as a disturbance to the Union. If you are enjoying a three-day holiday weekend, take a moment to reflect on the greatness of past leaders who struggled to ensure the continuity of the union. From all of us at Enterra Solutions®, celebrate a safe and enjoyable Washington’s Birthday.

Footnotes
[1] Editors, “Presidents’ Day 2019: Presidents’ Day History, Folklore, and More,” The Old Farmers’ Almanac, 2019.
[2] Ron Chernow, “George Washington: The Reluctant President,” Smithsonian, February 2011 (editors’ note).
[3] Ibid.
[4] Staff, “Washington’s Farewell Address,” United States Senate.