His birthday, February 22, was marked unofficially almost from the time of his death in 1799, and it formally became a national holiday in 1885. Over time, Americans also began honoring another great leader, Abraham Lincoln, whose February 12 birthday falls near Washington's. Official recognition of the two began in 1971, with a day honoring all presidents every year on the third Monday of the month.
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 a king if he'd so chosen. Some of his officers, impatient with the democratic process, urged him to do just that.
"Banish these thoughts from your mind," Washington said, 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 the time, America was a loose confederation of thirteen states. Over the next six years, Americans struggled to devise a framework 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 who most 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 stepped down, 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 all future presidents. He also oversaw a peaceful transfer of power from one elected leader to another, a principle vital to democracy and an example for peoples around the world.