Presidents Day: Whose Birthday Is It, Anyway?

-by Emily Akin-

Mt-Rushmore-2015“In America, anyone can become president. That’s one of the risks you take.” Adlai Stevenson (lost two bids for President, 1952 and 1956). Maybe it’s a risk, but it’s also what makes the USA special. On the third Monday in February, we celebrate Presidents’ Day, honoring all American presidents. Or is it George Washington’s birthday? Or maybe Washington’s birthday and Abraham Lincoln’s combined? To say the least, the history is confusing.

The current legal holiday is designated as Washington’s birthday. “In 1971, Congress fixed Washington’s Birthday and a number of other holidays on Mondays, to create long holiday weekends. Because a number of states (but not the federal government) officially celebrate the February 12 birthday of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president, many Americans have come to believe–incorrectly–that the third Monday of February is a consolidated Presidents’ Day honoring both Washington and Lincoln, and indeed all U.S. presidents. Many states designate the holiday as Presidents’ Day, and merchants offer Presidents’ Day sales.”

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Statue of George Washington in Washington Hall at the American Village campus in Montevallo, Alabama.

Did you think the day was supposed to honor all of our past presidents? You’re not the only one. In my research, I’ve found that businesses use the day to offer special sales while schools see it as a great time to teach our children about the presidency. I also found Web sites that list the ten worst presidents and the ten best presidents as their contribution to the presidents day discussion.

No doubt, Washington deserves to be honored as our first president and leader of the revolutionary American army. You’ve probably heard the story about how he could not tell a lie when confronted about chopping down his father’s cherry tree. He is the only president who was honored with a special day during his lifetime. He understood the importance of being the first person to serve in the nation’s highest office. Washington said, “I walk on untrodden ground. There is scarcely any part of my conduct which may not hereafter be drawn into precedent.”

Washington earned his reputation without the benefit of 24-hour press coverage, spin doctors, and bloggers. Not only do we honor him annually on his birthday, but we continually find other ways to honor him. In 1976, Congress posthumously promoted Washington to the rank of six-star general of the armies, assuring that he would continue to outrank all other members of the military, now and in the future.

If you want to honor other presidents, I guess that’s your prerogative. In my research, I found that Lincoln is often mentioned as the best president. His story resonates with ordinary Americans. Born in Kentucky, he spent most of this adult life in Illinois. A self-educated man, he served in the Illinois legislature before becoming President in probably the most difficult time in our nation’s history. He personifies the concept that anyone can become President.

Well, there are some requirements. According to the Constitution, anyone can run for the office if he or she is at least 35 years old, a natural-born U. S. citizen, and a resident for at least 14 years. That’s it. You don’t have to have royal blood or any special education or training. You just have to get yourself elected.

Tennessee has produced three presidents: Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, and Andrew Johnson. Jackson is famous for his military exploits and for his toughness, hence the nickname “Old Hickory.” Polk’s legacy was the concept of Manifest Destiny, “the idea that it was “God’s will” for the United States to expand westward.” Serving in the aftermath of the Civil War, Johnson became president after Lincoln was assassinated. He also was the first president to be impeached.

So, suit yourself. Honor Washington or choose to honor any and all presidents. No matter how you celebrate, the date for Washington’s Birthday is February 15, 2016.