President's Day remembers two who met history's call

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   As another important election draws near, President's Day, a federally enacted holiday designated as a time to remember and honor two important U.S. presidents, may also remind Americans of their basic rights.
   George Washington, considered the "Father of His Country", marshaled an army to victory against the greatest military power on earth and helped found the United States of America. Abraham Lincoln, also called "The Great Emancipator", ended slavery and guided the nation through its bleakest period during the Civil War.
   Beyond simply being another federal holiday, President's Day commemorates Washington and Lincoln as the two U.S. presidents perhaps most responsible for sustaining the United States as a republic.
   The original version of the holiday was in commemoration of George Washington's birthday in 1796 (the last full year of his presidency). Washington, according to the calendar that has been used since at least the mid-18th century, was born on Feb. 22, 1732. According to the calendar in use at that time, however, he was born on Feb. 11. At least in 1796, many Americans celebrated his birthday on the 22nd while others marked the occasion on the 11th instead.
   By the early 19th century, Washington's birthday took firm root as a bona fide national holiday. Its traditions included birthnight balls in various regions, speeches and receptions given by prominent public figures, and a lot of revelry in taverns throughout the land. Then along came Lincoln, another revered president and February baby born on the 12th of the month.
   The first formal observance of Lincoln's birthday took place in 1866, the year after his assassination, when both houses of Congress gathered for a memorial address. While Lincoln's birthday did not become a federal holiday like George Washington's, it did become a legal holiday in several states.
   In 1968, Congress enacted legislation that affected several federal holidays. One of these was Washington's birthday, the observation of which was shifted to the third Monday in February each year whether or not it fell on the 22nd. This act, which took effect in 1971, was designed to simplify the yearly calendar of holidays and give federal employees some standard three-day weekends in the process.
   While the holiday in February is still officially known as Washington's Birthday - at least according to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management policy -- it has become commonly known as "President's Day." This has made the third Monday in February a day for honoring Washington and Lincoln, as well as all the other men who have served as president.
   A Virginia farmer turned general, Washington gained fame fighting for the British government during the French and Indian War. When the American colonies began their struggle for independence, Washington became commander of the Continental Army. The army suffered numerous defeats until crossing from Delaware into New Jersey and defeating England.
   After leading the Continental Army to win independence from England, Washington refused an immediate offer from supporters to become king of the new colonies. His willingness to relinquish the office after two terms established the precedents for limits on the power of the presidency.
   During Washington's two terms as president from 1789-1797, the nation's public and private sectors developed into the systems known today. The Judiciary Act specified the number of federal courts and judges. The U.S. Supreme Court met for the first time with John Jay as the Chief Justice. The Bill of Rights took effect and a national banking system was established by the Bank Act.
   Congress established the post office as a separate government entity and the New York Stock Exchange was organized. The Coinage Act, passed in 1792, created the first U.S. coins minted by the government. During his presidency, Washington also posed for his famous portrait used to this day on the one-dollar bill.
   Born in a log cabin on Feb. 12, 1809, in Hardin County, Ky., Abraham Lincoln settled in Illinois where he became a lawyer and lawmaker for the state. He won the Republican nomination for president and the 1860 presidential election. Only months after his inauguration, confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter, S.C., igniting the four-year Civil War that would leave more than 600,000 Americans dead.
   As President, Lincoln built the Republican Party into a strong national organization. He rallied most of the northern Democrats to the Union cause. On Jan. 1, 1863, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation that declared forever free those slaves within the Confederacy, but not the Union itself. Tennessee's Andrew Johnson served as vice president during Lincoln's second term following Hannibal Hamlin. Johnson was a Democrat and chosen in large part to broaden the president's appeal for the war. On Good Friday, April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth assassinated Lincoln at Ford's Theatre in Washington.