Why is Presidents’ Day so important? It’s not a day to gloss over

Published 11:35 am Friday, February 16, 2024

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Washington’s Birthday is a U.S. federal holiday celebrated on the third Monday of February in honor of George Washington, the first president of the United States. Increasingly, the holiday has become an occasion to celebrate the birthdays of both President George Washington and President Abraham Lincoln.
Washington’s Birthday was the first federal holiday to honor an individual’s birthdate. Originally established in 1885 to recognize the nation’s first president, George Washington, the holiday became popularly known as Presidents’ Day after it was moved as part of the 1971’s Uniform Monday Holiday Act. That came about through an attempt to create more three-day weekends for the nation’s workers. While several states still have individual holidays honoring the birthdays of Washington, Abraham Lincoln and others, Presidents’ Day is now widely seen as the day to celebrate all U.S. presidents, past and present.
Generally, the day is synonymous with Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays.
Since it is a federal holiday, many banks and state and federal agencies will be closed Feb. 19 in recognition of Presidents’ Day. The post office is closed and many non-essential federal workers have the day off, as well as workers with other government agencies that align their holidays with the federal holiday calendar.
Presidents’ Day is a significant holiday in the United States. It’s not just a day to celebrate George Washington’s birthday, but it is a day dedicated to honoring all those who have served as presidents of the United States. Since 1879, it has specifically commemorated George Washington, one of the Founding Fathers and a pivotal figure in American history. Washington played key roles in leading the Continental Army to victory during the Revolutionary War, presiding over the Constitutional Convention of 1787, and becoming the nation’s first president.
Since George Washington took the oath of office, 45 men have served as president of the United States.
From the time of Washington the presidency has evolved with the incumbent playing many roles. One potential use of Presidents’ Day is to reflect on that evolution.
The president is the chief of state. He is the ceremonial head of government. At the same time, the president is the chief executive of the government. As such he oversees the activities of the executive branch. He has the power of appointment, sometimes with the consent of the Senate, and the power of removal of thousands of key officials. His role has evolved over time as he exercises powers in crisis and then sees those powers become a part of the presidential portfolio.
On Presidents’ Day, it is important to pause and subject the candidates in our upcoming election to that office to critical examination.
The president is the country’s chief diplomat, the one person who has paramount authority and responsibility for foreign affairs. Over time the president’s role in foreign relations has grown and come to be accepted by the other branches of government.
The president is also the commander-in-chief, the highest civilian authority over the country’s military.
He is seen as having a major role in the legislative process and is often elected because of the domestic program he advocates. Although he strictly has only the power of the veto, the president and his executive team are the source of much of the major legislation that makes its way through Congress.
In all these roles the president is a focal point for the things over which he has power and for the things over which he has no control. Some presidents have used their real power, and what Teddy Roosevelt called the bully pulpit, to achieve great success. Others have used their powers and abilities poorly and are remembered as failed leaders.
During the 235 years since Washington assumed the office of the presidency, the federal government has grown. In that first year of government under our Constitution, the country’s population was approximately 4 million individuals. Now in 2024 the number of federal employees is estimated at 2.9 million, coming close to the total population during the first year of our federal government.
Nowhere is the evolution of the office more clearly seen than in the president’s cabinet.
In Washington’s day there were four cabinet members: Thomas Jefferson, secretary of state, Alexander Hamilton, secretary of the treasury, Henry Knox, the nation’s first secretary of war, and Edmund Randolph, attorney general.
Now in addition to the first four departments, the president’s cabinet has executive departments for Agriculture, Commerce, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Labor, Transportation, and Veterans Affairs.
The cabinet, and the reach of the federal government, does not stop with these executive departments. Cabinet status also goes to the chief of staff, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, the director of National Intelligence, the U.S. trade representative, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, the head of the Council of Economic Advisors, the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the head of the Small Business Administration.
As the federal government has grown, so has the power of the presidency. Some of the men who have wielded that evolving power are considered great presidents. Washington and Lincoln head that list with largely uniform agreement. Franklin Roosevelt is always near the top of any ranking, as are Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. After them debates can get rancorous.
What the great ones share is that they brought their talents to bear in times of national crisis. Leading the country through dangerous times forged their reputations and their standing. With their actions the scope and power of the presidency expanded.
Presidents’ Day is an excellent time to think about our own criteria for those we would seek to have wield executive power. Why do Warren Harding, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson and Herbert Hoover tend to bring up the rear in any survey of presidential greatness?
The presidency is an office of great power and standing in the country and in the world. It has perhaps a greater expanse of power than some find appropriate. Yet it is perhaps too limited in power for others who lose patience with the pace of government in our era of discord.
Whatever our views, it is important to subject the candidates in our upcoming election to that office to critical examination. What better time to do so than on a day dedicated to all the men who led, for a time, our great experiment in government where the people are sovereign.
The Holy Scriptures instruct us in Exodus 18:21 to “look for men from all the people, men who fear God, who are trustworthy.”

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