Posted by: Daniel Cisek, Deputy Press Attache
The third Monday in February is a national holiday in the United States. Although commonly known as Presidents’ Day, the official name of it is Washington’s Birthday. The day honors our first president, George Washington, who was born on February 22. The holiday became connected with another important president, Abraham Lincoln, who was born on February 12. Lincoln’s birthday had been celebrated as a separate holiday in many states (and still is in a few), but was merged with Washington’s into a “Presidents’ Day” in many after the introduction of Martin Luther King Day in mid-January in order to keep the number of official days of work the same. This year the holiday falls on February 21.
It’s commonly said that George Washington was “first in the hearts of his countrymen.” Americans know and revere him for two major accomplishments: successfully commanding the United States army in the Revolutionary War, and establishing the limits on executive power as the first president of the United States.
All American schoolchildren can retell the story of George Washington and the cherry tree, which is probably fictional, but illustrates the popular perception of his incorruptible honesty. It’s said that as a young boy, Washington used his new hatchet to chop down his father’s prize cherry tree. When his father asked about it, he replied truthfully, saying, “I cannot tell a lie.”
During the Revolutionary War, Washington’s inexperienced soldiers faced the formidable British army. He led them to victory in the face of incredible hardships. Washington enjoyed nearly universal respect, particularly for refusing all offers of political power after his military triumph, choosing instead to return to his Virginia farm as a private citizen. The drafters of the new Constitution in 1787 were willing to give the executive branch greater powers because they expected Washington to be chosen as the first president. They trusted him not to abuse his office and to establish important precedents on the limits of executive power for his successors.
Washington served two terms as president, from 1789 to 1797. He was the most popular figure in America at the end of his second term, but again relinquished power. By doing so, he established an informal eight-year limit on the presidency that was later formalized by the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution (1951). His military leadership allowed the United States to gain its independence, but his honesty and responsible use of executive power played an even greater role in establishing the country as a democratic Republic based on the rule of law, where the president respects the limits placed on his authority by the Constitution.