Why We Celebrate Presidents' Day
United States President Barack Obama
44th President of the United States
Official portrait, 2013
Since the formation of the United States following the conclusion of the American Revolution, celebrating the leaders and founding fathers that served as President has been an important cultural milestone that acknowledges the influence, sacrifice, and legacies of the President of the United States.
First celebrated in 1879, Presidents' Day remains a symbol of American freedom and democracy and the first leaders who established this spirit in the early years of the United States' formation. Presidents' Day is sometimes called Washington and Lincoln's Birthday since it's celebrated on February 20 to commemorate the first President's birth on February 22. In some instances, the holiday celebrates Washington individually, while more commonly, the holiday includes not only the early presidents but everyone to hold this highest office.
Many people ask, what is the cultural significance of Presidents' Day? It remains a celebration of the leaders who have served at the highest level of the American government and the influence they have had over America's collective history.
George Washington: The First American President
Perhaps the most iconic and notable President of the United States is the first, George Washington. After leading the Continental Army in the American Revolution, Washington was elected as the First President of the USA, and he established many traditions and practices that remain to this day. Washington also presided over the Constitutional Convention in 1787.
Born in 1732 to a wealthy planter family who owned 5,000 acres of land, including portions on the banks of the iconic Potomac River, Washington first-served public office as the surveyor of Culpeper County, VA starting in 1749. He then received military training and led the Virginia Regiment during the French and Indian War from 1754 to 1763. This conflict would emerge as part of the Colonial desire for freedom from British rule and start the movement that would ultimately spark the American Revolution.
Washington's role in ratifying and adopting the United States Constitution is critical and remains one of his most enduring legacies. Washington is also responsible for establishing the title of "Mr. President," taking an oath of office with the right hand placed on a bible and his farewell address that is widely considered to be a statement on the importance of the republic over monarchism.
The Early Presidents and Virginia Dynasty
The so-called Virginia Dynasty refers to the fact that the first five Presidents were all born in the state of Virginia, one of the original colonies and a central part of early American history. Patrick Henry delivered the iconic "Give me Liberty or Give Me Death" speech at the St. John's Church in Richmond, VA, on March 23, 1775. As they battled the British forces, this would become a rallying cry for revolutionary troops.
Following Washington's initial two terms, John Adams took the position of President of the United States. Adams was a founding father and instrumental in Washington's administration, serving as Vice President during both terms. Adams was a lawyer and political thinker that advocated for the presumption of innocence and the right to counsel, which would become hallmarks of the American legal system.
Third President Thomas Jefferson is another iconic early American political leader who had served as Secretary of State under President Washington. Jefferson was an influential political voice who was critical to developing the Declaration of Independence and the principal author of this historic document. Jefferson served as the second Governor of Virginia during the American Revolution. Jefferson worked with James Madison to form the Democratic-Republican Party to oppose the Federalist Party. Madison and Jefferson also worked to strengthen state's rights and nullify the alien and sedition acts.
Madison was elected as the fourth U.S. President in 1809 and is considered the "Father of the Constitution" for his prominent role in drafting both the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. He was the Secretary of State under President Jefferson and served when Jefferson completed the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the land area controlled by the United States and remains one of the most pivotal moments in America's westward expansion, which would continue throughout the nineteenth century. Madison served as a member of the Virginia House of Delegates as well as the Continental Congress during the American Revolution.
Fifth President James Monroe served from 1817 to 1825 and became well known for the Monroe Doctrine. This policy established a staunchly anti-European attitude towards colonialism in North America and became popular with Americans who believed in the idea that the United States asserted dominance across the nation and expanded the American empire. This doctrine would later become associated with the concept of Manifest Destiny, which led to the settlement of numerous western regions until the United States.
The first Presidents' Day was held in 1879 and marked a significant moment in American history. The late nineteenth century marked a period of transformation as the industrial revolution brought residents to cities across the north and midwest for work in thriving mills and other factories. These communities of workers from Western Europe and the American South established neighborhoods along cultural lines with distinct characteristics, many of which exist to this day.
The Historical Importance of the Office of the President
There is no doubt that becoming President remains one of the most prestigious political titles that an individual can attain in the United States. The historical significance of the early Presidents and the impact they would have on democracy across the globe. The impact that the office of the President holds, not only domestically but internationally, cannot be underestimated.
The power of the President of the United States, sometimes referred to as POTUS, has ebbed and flowed over the years and is part of the three branches of the federal government established to provide checks and balances on their respective colleagues.
The office of the President remains the most prestigious title an elected official can hold.
Another important aspect of Presidents' Day is to commemorate soldiers for their bravery and courage. In 1932 the tradition of awarding the Purple Heart to soldiers who had been injured on the battlefield was revived on what would have been Washington's 200th birthday. Washington's portrait appears on the Purple Heart medal, and it remains a solemn reminder of the sacrifice that service members give for the freedom of the United States and its values.
Washington's role as the leader of the Continental Army played a pivotal part in the patriot's success over British forces during the Revolutionary War, and his military service remains a crucial piece of American history. The Continental Army comprised members from all thirteen original colonies, and Washington remained the Commander in Chief for the duration of the War. The majority of the Continental Army was disbanded after the Treaty of Paris officially ended the Revolutionary War in 1783.
The 1st and 2nd Regiments of the Continental Army went on to form the Legion of America, which became the basis for the U.S. Army. Washington established a headquarters in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, which is still standing to this day and remains a centerpiece of the Valley Forge National Park. Washington strived to organize his forces which served as state militiamen, and throughout the eight years of battle, the Continental Army became more experienced.
In 1777 Baron van Strutten, a Prussian military expert was brought on to modernize the Continental Army and bring it up to European standards.
Creative Ways to Celebrate Presidents' Day
One of the most iconic ways to commemorate Presidents' Day is by baking a fresh cherry pie due to the association with President Washington's chopping down a cherry tree in his youth. This symbolic gesture dates back to the early days of American history and remains an enduring part of Presidents' Day celebrations. Many towns and cities across the nation also hold parades through downtown areas to celebrate the occasion.
Since 1862 a tradition of reading Washington's farewell address has also become a popular way to celebrate the day and was even observed during the Civil War by both the North and South. The significance of the speech is primarily that it established the norm of the President only serving two terms which was an unwritten rule until 1940 and the 22nd Amendment.
A popular Presidents' Day celebration remains to commit acts of service in citizens' local communities to bring positive change and enhance their areas. Presidents' Day in 2023 remains a revered holiday celebrating the service of the highest office in the United States.
In celebration of Presidents' Day 2023, Historic Prints features vintage photos of some of the Presidents of the United States of America.
Image Source: Historic Prints - 1828 Unframed George Washington Portrait Photo Print
Image Source: Historic Prints - 1828 Unframed John Adams Portrait Photo
Image Source: Historic Prints - 1825 Unframed Thomas Jefferson Portrait Photo Print
Image Source: Historic Prints - 1828 Unframed James Madison Portrait Photo Print
Image Source: Historic Prints - 1828 Unframed President James Monroe Portrait Photo Print
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