President’s Day: The Story Behind the Day America Celebrates Her Presidents

President's Day

“HAPPY PRESIDENTS DAY!”

Celebrated on the third Monday of February, it’s one of 12 federal holidays (originally proclaimed in 1879). But the celebrations had been around much longer, initially to celebrate the birthday of the “Father of our Country” George Washington, and later the Great Emancipator Abraham Lincoln.

In fact, since 1862, the U.S. Senate has read George Washington’s Farewell Address aloud, as per public request to not forget the Founding Father’s admonitions on partisan politics and civil war.

But today hasn’t always been “President’s Day.”

In fact, depending on your state, there are 15 different names for this day. As mentioned, it was originally designated to honor George Washington’s birthday (Feb 22). And then Abraham Lincoln’s birthday (Feb 12).

Consequently, in many states its still known as “Washington’s Birthday” or “Lincoln’s Birthday.”

However, other states felt it was better to honor all the presidents…therefore “President’s Day.”

Of course, the counter-cultural, non-traditional California took a more politically-correct path. They prefer a bland, generic and cumbersome tag: “The Third Monday in February” (to avoid honoring any particular president). With that logic, they should be consistent and do the same with the months of the year (to avoid honoring any particular Roman god, leader, festival or number).

The irony? California was the first state to organize a President’s Day celebration in 1951.

Ironically, one state has historically chosen not to celebrate President’s Day (or Washington/Lincoln’s birthday)…and it’s President Joe Biden’s home state of Delaware. No reason why.

Black History Month is also connected to this holiday.

After the Civil War, the Black community were grateful for their freedom from slavery. By 1900 dozens of Black communities were using February to honor the the birthdays of the slave emancipator Abraham Lincoln and Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass. As part of these celebrations, Black historians used the opportunity to teach their history, and to honor other abolitionists (both Black and White) who worked tirelessly for their freedom, including Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman and Harriet Beecher Stowe, President John Quincy Adams, John Brown and anti-slavery publisher William Lloyd Garrison.

In 1926, Black historian Carter C. Woodson proclaimed the second week of February “Negro History Week.” For decades, it was an important time for Black children especially to learn their story. In the 1970s, after the Civil Rights Movement opened new doors and equalized opportunities for Black America, the week was expanded to a whole month.

However, the emergence of Black nationalism and “Black Power” eliminated the “white” part of their story. Black History Month was only for Black history and Black people, effectively kicking Lincoln and the White abolitionists, civil rights activists, politicians, and influencers who fought for Black equality to the curb).

Sadly, many Black Americans today won’t celebrate nor honor either George Washington, Abraham Lincoln or the other U.S. Presidents (save Barack Obama).

President’s Day is a Day to Celebrate Heroes

If you’re in the mood to celebrate on President’s Day, enjoy some cherry pie. The traditional treat that honors Washington’s legendary chopping down of a cherry tree (which he didn’t, of course).

Here’s an interesting fact: The “Purple Heart” award for America’s killed or wounded was instituted on Washington’s 200th birthday in 1932. Why? Because George Washington was America’s first general to award a medal for being injured in battle.

President’s Day isn’t just another day for federal employees to enjoy a paid holiday. Nor should it be a day our children–regardless of race–not learn about the lives of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

Proposed: U.S. President History Month

In fact, as a historian, I argue that February should rightfully be designated U.S. President History month. Four U.S. Presidents were born in February (Washington, William Henry Harrison, Lincoln, and Ronald Reagan). John Q. Adams and Woodrow Wilson died. It’s the month Washington was first elected U.S. President and Andrew Johnson was the first to be impeached.

With 46 (and counting) U.S. presidents, every day in February could easily focus on one, and sometimes two, presidents. The curriculum would gradually inform our youngest generations how these great men lived, led and died. For example, every child should learn their story (history). Every teen should understand their contributions to America (how they helped or hurt America). And every college student should examine their political philosophy and leadership practices.

President’s Day, Independence Day and Constitution Day (another forgotten holiday) should be America’s foundational “holy” days.

For without our leaders, our Declaration and Constitution, America would not exist.

It’s why we can never forget.

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