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President's Day

Today [February 18th] is Presidents’ Day in the United States, a day when Americans honor their national leaders, beginning with George Washington, the first president. Along with Abraham Lincoln, another great president, Washington was born in the month of February.

Washington won lasting fame for leading Americans to victory in 1782 in the war for independence from Britain. His popularity was such that he could have made himself monarch, if he had so chosen. Some of his officers, impatient with the democratic process, urged him to do exactly that. "Banish these thoughts from your mind," Washington replied and issued a stern reprimand to those who made the suggestion.

In December 1783, Washington ordered the army disbanded, resigned his commission as commander-in-chief, and retired to private life. At that time, America was a loose confederation of thirteen states.

Over the next half-dozen years, Americans struggled to devise a constitution that would create an effective federal government while leaving important powers to the states. Many Americans distrusted the idea of a national government and feared abuses of power by federal officials, especially the president.

At this critical time, Washington was the one man that the overwhelming majority of Americans were willing to trust. He was the unopposed choice, in 1789, to be the first president of the United States. When he took office, the United States had a constitution, but its government was not yet organized.

When he left, the U.S. was recognized by the world's major powers. Washington put the nation on a sound financial footing and created an effective military to protect America's expanding frontiers.

In revolutionary France, democratic ideals gave way to turmoil, terror, and repression. But in the United States, under Washington's leadership, revolution produced stable, democratic, and lawful government. By leaving office voluntarily after two four-year terms, Washington set an important precedent for future presidents. And he oversaw the peaceful transfer of power from one elected leader to another -- a principle vital to democracy.