The commemoration, which today honors all Presidents, was originally meant to celebrate George Washington, the first president of the United States.
As the leading figure during the American Revolutionary War and the country’s first Executive, George Washington was immensely popular. He was—and still is-often referred to as the Father of the United States. This is partly because he was the military leader credited with the victory of the American colonies over the most powerful army of the time. But he went on to shape the future of the Presidency, setting many a precedent for those who would hold the post after him.
Washington believed in the necessity of a balance between making the presidency powerful enough to be able to effectively lead a national government, but not so powerful as to mimic the authority of a monarchy. Worried that if he died in office, the public might decide that the Presidency was meant to be a life-time appointment, Washington resigned after two terms. With one exception—President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s four terms—every President followed Washington’s example of serving no more than two terms in office. In 1951, the U.S. Congress ratified the 22nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which limits the President to two terms in office.
President Washington significantly influenced the path for the presidency moving forward. He set standards in all aspects, including political power, military practice, and economic policy.
No wonder then that beginning in 1800, the year after his death, George Washington’s birthday, February 22, was unofficially celebrated throughout the new country he helped found. The observance of Washington’s birthday formally became a national holiday in 1885. Eventually Americans also began honoring another great leader, Abraham Lincoln, whose February 12 birthday falls close to Washington's. Eventually, the third Monday in February became a federal observance day honoring all presidents.
The Presidents’ Day observance salutes those leaders who had the courage and determination to step into this most difficult of jobs and lead the United States of America in good times and bad.
“All see, and most admire, the glare which hovers round the external trappings of elevated office,” George Washington once wrote in a letter to a friend. “To me there is nothing in it, beyond the luster which may be reflected from its connection with a power of promoting human felicity.”