On the third Monday in February, Americans celebrate Presidents’ Day. The commemoration was originally meant to recognize George Washington, the first president of the United States. Beginning in 1800, the year after his death, Washington’s birthday, February 22, was unofficially celebrated throughout the new country he helped found. Eventually, the honor was extended to another great leader, Abraham Lincoln, whose February 12 birthday is close to Washington's.
George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are nearly universally considered to be the two best Presidents ever to hold the office. This is largely due to the momentous events that were taking place around them, and each man’s personal integrity which caused him to respond with far-reaching decisions that set the country on a path to grow strong, prosperous and democratic.
George Washington was the most popular personality of his day. He was the only President to be unanimously elected: every representative of every state voted for him. When Washington assumed the Presidency, there literally was no government or leader that could serve as a model for him. There was no democracy anywhere else in the world. Yet he helped to enshrine the principles for which he helped fight a war, that all people, everywhere were entitled to equal rights. He was one of the driving forces behind the creation and establishment of the Constitution, the document that defines the principles and mechanisms around which the government is built and by which the rights of citizens are enshrined. By his own actions, he set standards in political and military practice, as well as economic policy. By stepping down after just two terms, he ensured that the Presidency did not become a position for life, and that Presidential power was transferred peacefully.
Likewise, Abraham Lincoln presided over a country in turmoil. Where Washington had to contend with forming a new nation, Lincoln’s challenge was to shepherd it through the Civil War, prevent it from falling apart and set it on a path to grow stronger and more unified than before the war. Abraham Lincoln ushered in a new paradigm by which a weak central government that held together a loose federation of states was replaced by a true union of states headed by a strong federal government.
Today, Presidents’ Day honors every person that held that office. But none has had the impact of, nor deserved the honor more, than Washington and Lincoln.