2010-02-10 / Editorials

Hail All Presidents On Washington’s Birthday

When some of us were in elementary school, lo these many years ago, the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, the first and 16th presidents, respectively, were celebrated as two separate days of significance. Washington’s birthday was a federal holiday and until the late 1980s, corporate businesses and schools in many parts of the country, were closed.

In some localities Lincoln’s birthday, as well as that of Washington, meant a day off from school, but Lincoln was still less celebrated than Washington. A draft of a proposal for amending the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968 that would have renamed the holiday to Presidents' Day to honor the birthdays of both Washington and Lincoln failed in committee and the bill as voted on and signed into law on June 28, 1968 kept the name Washington's Birthday. Now familiarly known as Presidents’ Day, it honors all 44 United States presidents as well as Lincoln and Washington.

The holiday, though today more a day off from school and, for some fortunate souls, work, still celebrates the two most noted presidents in America’s history as well as their 42 counterparts. As such, Presidents’ Day also salutes another element for the most part unique to the United States: the egalitarianism that brings outstanding leaders to the Oval Office. Washington was the third son (first-born of a second wife) of a Virginia planter. He distinguished himself in a number of military endeavors and was the logical choice for commanding general of the Continental Army in the War of Independence. The new nation required an elected leader and Washington was the logical choice for Chief Executive as well.

Lincoln came from a less distinguished, less monied background. A truly self-made and largely self-educated man, he was a lawyer and Congressmember before he was elected to the presidency. Although his military experience consisted only of service as a captain in a company of the Illinois militia during the Black Hawk War of 1832, he was able to lead the Union Army as Commander in Chief during the Civil War and hold the country together during a crisis that threatened to tear it apart.

All successors to the first and 16th presidents have been standouts in many ways that made them the person best suited to lead the country, whenever they served and whatever the problems that beset their term or terms in the Oval Office. That they were able to be the right person in the right place at the right time is a testament to the egalitarianism that marks our political process and our society as a whole. On this Washington’s Birthday/President’s Day, let us pause to appreciate the social structure that makes it possible for the cream to rise to the top and give us the president we need at a time when we need a president whose skills, talents and personality are uniquely suited to be the best person available to deal with a particular situation, whatever that situation may happen to be.

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