In honor of President’s Day, the History Examiner wanted to give those loyal readers out there a quick and handy history lesson on the holiday and the great American president and Founding Father this day was geared towards.
President’s Day is a national holiday designated to celebrate the life and legacy of the “Father of our Country”, George Washington. Originally entitled “Washington’s Birthday”, this federal holiday was originally implemented by Congress in 1880 for government offices in the District of Columbia and later expanded it to all Federal offices in 1885. Prior to this act, many individual states such as Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Washington’s home state of Virginia had carried out their own remembrances of the Continental commander and our nation’s first president. The date chosen for the new holiday places it between February 15th and 21st, which makes the name “Washington’s Birthday” in some sense a misnomer, since it never lands on Washington’s actual birthday, February 22nd. In the 1950’s, a national movement began to get the holiday of “Washington’s Birthday” changed to “President’s Day” for the purpose of not only honoring Washington, but to honor the office of the Presidency itself. It was first thought that March 4th, the original inauguration day, should be deemed Presidents Day. However, the effort soon stalled in Congress. It would not be until the mid-1980’s that “President’s Day” would become a regular observance both for the Federal government and business across the country.
Though the Commonwealth has never had a direct influence over the creation of this particular holiday, the mid-state does have storied connections to General Washington from his earliest days as a surveyor and Virginia militiaman during the French and Indian War to his later years as the commander of the American Continental Army and as president with the suppressing of the famed Whiskey Rebellion. Even his death has a connection to the mid-state, which is the story that we would like to share with you today.
On December 14, 1799, Washington died at Mount Vernon, Virginia only two years after voluntarily stepping down as President of the United States. Four days later, his family held a funeral at Mount Vernon, and placed Washington’s remains in a receiving vault located down the slope of the hill toward the Potomac River. Shortly after this event, a joint committee of Congress drafted memorial resolution and set December 26th as a day of formal mourning in the city of Philadelphia, which at the time was still the capital of the young nation. Philadelphia’s mayor, Robert Wharton, requested that the bells of Christ Church, where Washington had attended Sunday services during his many visits to the city and his presidency, be muffled for three days “as a mark of the deep regret with which the citizens of this place view the melancholy news.”
(Past History Examiner writings: “The Secret Life of an American [President]”)
On December 26th, sixteen cannon were fired to announce the day of Washington’s mourning. Afterward, one of the cannon fired every half hour until 11:30 am, when a procession of Congress, a military guard, Washington’s successor President John Adams, and other civic leaders, escorted a bier from Sixth and Chestnut Streets to Zion Lutheran Church, the largest house of worship in the city. There, Bishop William White, rector of Christ Church, conducted the service and General Richard Henry Lee, who had led the militia force commanded by Washington against the Whiskey rebels of western Pennsylvania in 1794, gave the hastily written and poorly delivered eulogy. Lee was selected for the task because he had married into the Custis family to which Martha Washington belonged, and thus was the most prominent American closely related to the former president. Despite its poor reception by the attending dignitaries and press later on, Lee’s eulogy did contain one memorable phrase that American school children would learn and recite for generations to come: “First in War, First in Peace, First in the Hearts of His Countrymen.”
The National Funeral at Philadelphia on December 26, 1799 triggered a tradition of sorrow that continued well into the 1800’s. Citizens across the nation responded to Washington’s death in sermons, song, paintings and sculpture. Artists and historians presented Washington as the last of the classical heroes, a figure whose charismatic leadership embodied the eighteenth-century Enlightenment ideal of the classical republic. Congress also did their part to reinforce the image of Washington that many school children and adults cherish. On December 28, Congress approved a bill for the erection of a monument to Washington’s memory on the banks of the Potomac in the new capital city that was being built. There was also a motion to rename the new capital “Washington” in his great leader’s honor and move his remains to the new seat of government once the monument was completed as a national tomb / shrine. However, the government failed to put up the funds needed to complete the Washington Monument until the 1880’s and by that point it was decided that the general’s remains would stay at Mount Vernon, where they remain today.
If you have your own President’s Day facts, traditions, or comments, feel free to post them below!!!!
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