On the third Monday in February, Americans celebrate Presidents’ Day. The holiday falls between the birthdays of two of the United States’ most influential and admired Presidents: Abraham Lincoln on February 12 and George Washington on the twenty-second. Each was, in his own way, enormously influential in the foundation and development of the United States.
George Washington is sometimes called the Father of the United States, and for good reason. As the leader of the rebel army that won the country’s independence from the British Crown, he was venerated as the premier hero of the United States and trusted by the population like none other. Had he been a lesser man, he could have used his enormous popularity to elevate himself to a position of power, King of the thirteen North American colonies. “Perish the thought,” he said to those admirers who suggested just that.
Instead, he used his great influence to help shape the new country’s foundation. Over the six years following the revolution, as the young country struggled to devise a federal government that would hold the former colonies together, yet not impinge on their rights as individual states, he led the fledgling United States of America through the initial labor pains that eventually gave birth to a stable, democratic, and lawful government.
Washington went on to shape the future of the Presidency, setting many a precedent for those who would hold the post after him. His final important act as President was to leave office voluntarily after two four-year terms, thus ensuring the peaceful transfer of power to his elected successor.
On the other hand, Abraham Lincoln held the reins as the country threatened to tear itself apart in a civil war. Luckily for the United States, he was far more than the leader of the winning side. As the war neared its end, he began to set the stage for a peacetime shift in power distribution between federal and state government entities. As a result, the United States emerged from the Civil War a much stronger country: a true union of states headed by a strong federal government.
Today, Presidents’ Day honors every person that held the country’s highest office. But none has had the impact of, nor deserved the honor more, than Washington and Lincoln, who unified the country around a set of ideals that to this day shape the country and its people.