COLUMN: What We Should Remember on Presidents’ Day
On February 16 of this year, our country celebrates ‘Presidents’ Day’ almost 240 years after the beginning of the American Revolution and 154 years since the start of the Civil War. The name of the holiday seems generic, suggesting that we celebrate all elected federal executives, when we really should honor two pivotal figures in our history: the first and the sixteenth presidents, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Their titles of ‘Father of Our Country’ and the ‘Savior of the Union’ aptly describe the roles they played in our national story. Washington offered his services as general of the Continental Army to ensure the country’s birth, later laying down his sword to return to civilian life rather than accept a title higher than ‘citizen.’ Lincoln led the nation during the Civil War to a rebirth of freedom that ended slavery. We honor them with monuments and a national holiday, and these presidents still have relevance to us today.
Writing as “an old and affectionate friend” in his Farewell Address upon his retirement from the presidency, George Washington charged the American people with the duty to work together to preserve the Constitution:
[T]hat your union and brotherly affection may be perpetual; that the free Constitution, which is the work of your hands, may be sacredly maintained; that its administration in every department may be stamped with wisdom and virtue; that, in fine, the happiness of the people of these States, under the auspices of liberty, may be made complete by so careful a preservation and so prudent a use of this blessing.
It is up to us to fulfill the first president’s encouragement to keep the government within the bounds of the law, to take responsibility and in good faith find common ground – both for our own benefit and for succeeding generations.
Abraham Lincoln also encouraged us to consider the future of our liberty. In his address to dedicate the burial ground on the great battlefield of Gettysburg, Lincoln reminded all Americans that self-government demands renewed dedication to preserve our freedom, remembering the cause of those who have sacrificed for us:
It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Washington and Lincoln encouraged Americans to remain steadfast in our dedication to preserving freedom and self-government, not just for ourselves, but to pass on to those who come after we are gone. In their acts and words that continue to guide us, it is fitting that we remember them and reflect on their wisdom this Presidents’ Day.