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Honoring Our First Commander-in-Chief

February 22, 2012

The third Monday in February gives Americans a token winter day off from school or work to play in the snow or get a jump start on Spring Cleaning. For me, President’s Day always seems like a bonus, an extra day to help combat the winter blues, or snuggle under a blanket with a hot cup of tea. No matter what you like to do on President’s Day, we have 19th Century Americans to thank for the respite we enjoy this week. Looking for more information about President’s Day, I explored the websites of the Library of Congress, National Archives, and U.S. Senate.

President’s Day owes its origins to a celebration of George Washington. In fact, according to federal documents, the third Monday is February is actually a holiday commemorating Washington’s Birthday. The first President of our young nation was born February 22, 1732 in Virginia. We know he went on to be a great leader (and tenacious farmer) helping to move a fledgling Congress in to a modern democracy. In 1879, February 22nd became a federal holiday, though not always a paid one. While exploring the National Archives I came across this document, a bill from the 45th Congress to make the 22nd of February a holiday in the District of Columbia. At this time a holiday didn’t always mean a day off work, that would come after the turn of the century.  However, by 1885, some federal employees both in the District of Columbia and around the nation were being paid on February 22nd for a holiday to commemorate George Washington. He was the first native born American to be honored in this way.

So why don’t we celebrate on February 22nd?  In 1968 the Uniform Monday Holiday Act was passed by the 90th Congress and Washington’s birthday shifted to the third Monday in February. This was done in the thought to create three day weekends to promote the health of the nation. Interestingly enough, the third Monday in February will never fall on February 22nd. Still, the day is observed in federal record as Washington’s Birthday, not President’s Day. One federal holiday historian took an interesting look at the renaming process in this article for the National Archives and Records Administration. I thought that this holiday was always known as President’s Day, but having grown up in Illinois, February was just as much about honoring Abraham Lincoln as it was George Washington.  Turns out that I was mistaken, that President’s Day, according to the author of this article, was a phrase conjured by advertisements looking to lure workers on holiday to spend money. I thought that was Valentine’s Day?

Several traditions from Victorian Era celebrations of Washington’s Birthday persist today. One is the annual reading of Washington’s Farewell Address to members of the U.S. Senate. This tradition started in the midst of brutal days of the Civil War in 1862, and because an annual tradition by 1896. Each year a Senator is chosen to read the address.  He or she then enters his or her name and an inscription into a black book that is kept by the Secretary of State for such purposes.  The inscription is hand written and personal.  The inscription for January 22nd, 1900, is the first of the black leather bound book and can be viewed here. It is from  Joseph B. Foraker, a Republican from Ohio.  This year, Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-New Hampshire) will perform the honor and sign the book when the Senate reconvenes on Monday February 27th, 2012.

In reading the address it is no wonder why this tradition has persisted, passages about our nation, bipartisanship for the common good, and our responsibilities as citizens echo true today.  For the full text of the speech, visit the link above, or enjoy these excerpts.

The unity of government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so; for it is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad, of your safety, of your prosperity, of that very liberty which you so highly prize. But as it is easy to foresee that, from different causes and from different quarters, much pains will be taken, many artifices employed, to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth; as this is the point in your political fortress against which the batteries of internal and external enemies will be most constantly and actively (though often covertly and insidiously) directed, it is of infinite moment that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national Union to your collective and individual happiness; that you should cherish a cordial, habitual, and immovable attachment to it; accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it as of the palladium of your political safety and prosperity; watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety; discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion that it can in any event be abandoned; and indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts.

– page 5-6

In this sense it is, that your Union ought to be considered as a main prop of your liberty, and that the love of the one ought to endear to you the preservation of the other.

– page 10

To the efficacy and permanency of your Union, a government for the whole is indispensable.

– page 12

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation on the ruins of public liberty.

– pages 16-17

So as we celebrate the birthday of George Washington, let us remember what our nation has endured to get to where we are today, and think about how we can carry the spirits of that infant nation on. I also want to recognize those 19th century Americans who thought to honor George Washington, and gave us the opportunity to spend a winter day with our friends and family. Hope you enjoyed it.

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