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Happy Birthday, GW!

The holiday we know as President’s Day was originally called “Washington’s Birthday.”

George Washington led America to victory as the commander of the Continental Army, presided over the Constitutional Convention, and became the first President of the United States. 

His day of birth was celebrated by the public while he was serving as president, but it wasn’t until 1879 that his birthday— February 22— became a federally recognized holiday. 

In 1968, Congress passed the “Uniform Monday Holiday Act” which moved the holiday known as “Washington’s Birthday” to the third Monday of February. The government never officially changed the name to “President’s Day,” but thanks to advertising campaigns for holiday sales beginning in the 1980s, the term stuck. 

Today, we do not recognize just one man on President’s Day but celebrate the office of the presidency itself, and the 46 men who have held it. Still, Washington—and another exceptional leader, Abraham Lincoln (born February 12)— seem to receive the bulk of the attention, and rightly so.

George Washington did not seek to become the first president of the newly formed United States of America. In fact, after the war and the ratification of the Constitution, he greatly desired to retire to the private life at his home in Virginia. His only wish was to live and die “an honest man on my own farm.”

But his fellow Founding Fathers and the majority of the citizens believed that no one was more suited for the job than he was. They argued that the infant America desperately needed a strong and recognized leader at the helm.

Gouverneur Morris wrote to Washington and said: “Of all men, you are the best fitted to fill that office. Your cool, steady temper is indispensably necessary to give firm and manly tone to the new government. You must, I repeat must, mount the seat.”

Washington continued to resist the idea. He felt that someone more competent and more willing could do the job better than he could, but he feared that “my refusal might induce a belief that I preferred the conservation of my own reputation and private ease to the good of my country.”

So, in 1789, when the states selected their presidential electors and it became clear that Washington had won with a unanimous vote he said: “All I can promise is only that which can be accomplished by an honest zeal.” And he set off for New York.

He was sworn in as huge crowds looked on and cheered. He took the oath of office, kissed the Bible that he had covered with his right hand, and then addressed the Congress. He reminded them that it had been difficult for him to accept the office of President and that he felt inadequate to the duties at hand. Yet, the people had called him and he had responded.

His primary concern was that the amendments to the Constitution which had been insisted on by several states during the Constitutional Convention to more fully secure the rights of the people would be first on the agenda of the first official Congress.

The remainder of his inaugural address focused on his faith in God and his belief that America must rely on goodness and truth if it was to succeed:

“No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand which conducts the affairs of men more than the people of the United States. Every step by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency.”

“We ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which heaven itself has ordained.”

Acting as a trailblazer and assuming the role of the very first leader of the newly formed Republic must have been daunting, but Washington had one solid foundation on which to stand: “The Constitution of the United States, and the laws made under it, must mark the line of my official conduct.”

Washington established a wise precedent, showing his successors the way to safeguard America’s liberty. On this holiday, let us follow the example of George Washington. Let us put our faith in God and using the Constitution as our guide, answer the call to defend freedom and truth in America today. 

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