“…debt of gratitude which I owe to my beloved country for the many honors it has conferred upon me.” George Washington 1796
Is wishing a “Happy Birthday” to a deceased family member or a historical figure weird or macabre? Some may argue that it is, but in my opinion remembering our personal and national ancestors is important. Memory is important, and connections to our past are important. An inspired trip down your family’s memory lane, or our collective American historical highway, is a good thing. I often think of my great grandparents and grandparents on their birthdays, and sometimes I post a photo of them on social media or cook their favorite food. I feel as though that I still “know” my deceased relatives, including those that I never met. Equally, as a volunteer at Old Bethpage Village, I sometimes feel this way about the Hewlett Family or Peter Cooper or Mr. Noon or Mr. Luyster.
When I was in First or Second Grade, I am pretty sure we celebrated the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln at school. I also remember that their portraits hung next to the stage in my gym/auditorium. Conversely, my own parents never really called it President’s Day while I was growing up. They still referred to the holidays individually, as “Washington’s Birthday”, and “Lincoln’s Birthday”. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln have always been my favorite Presidents, and the Founding Era and the American Civil War, have always interested me the most as a historian. I’ve read a lot about both of them, and they are constantly competing in my brain for “The Best President.”
Once, while visiting my grandparents in Florida during February Break, I asked my mother to bake a cherry pie for George Washington’s birthday to celebrate the First President. I’m in my 30s, and I still buy or bake a cherry pie in February. If we are “in-school” on Lincoln’s Birthday, one of my colleagues and I often sing to Abe. More recently, my students (completely on their own initiative), baked a cake for Theodore Roosevelt’s birthday in October. I was ecstatic to have a class of high school seniors so massively excited about a dead historical figure. This was really great to see! The cake, by the way, even had a little Bull Moose on it.
As a history educator, I feel that it is important to remember both Washington and Lincoln. Of course, their actions, accomplishments, and deeds go beyond their birthdays. Likewise, as is the case in history, we need to be careful not to create idolatry for these figures as well. They did have their sins, mishaps and failures too. We should study our heroes, warts and all.
George Washington was the first national “hero” of America. The fact that he is referred to as the “Father of his Country”, pretty much sums up the national attention and praise he held both in his lifetime, and after his death in 1799. Although much of the heroic standing and mythology comes from nineteenth century authors, Washington undoubtedly was respected and lauded by eighteenth and nineteenth century Americans (Sorry, but the cherry tree story was fabricated. Although, Washington did love cherries). His character, achievements, civic virtue and leadership spoke volumes to Americans in the young Republic. His life and leadership became a model. His death sent shockwaves through the young nation, and his memory continued to thrive through popular culture, songs, poetry, eulogies, portraits, memorials and traditions. In the classroom, Washington was taught to young Americans as well. In my personal collection, I hold a geography textbook from 1853. On the cover, an engraving of George Washington is at the center of attention. In a few other nineteenth century history textbooks that I own, Washington is always given significant detail.
One way the young nation remembered Washington was yearly observances of his birthday in February. These observances were celebratory, and often had an air of Independence Day. During the mid-nineteenth century, local militias would fire muskets and cannons. There would be balls and dances for the gentlemen and ladies. Groups would also gather to sing patriotic songs, march in torchlit processions, participate in toasts, and to hear speeches. At the center of these speeches was George Washington’s own “Farewell Address”, which was published at the conclusion of his presidency. A matter of fact, Washington’s “Farewell Address” was one of the most widely known speeches in nineteenth century America, and was read in schools and regularly by politicians. By the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, “Washington’s Birthday” greeting and post-cards also became popular items to send in the mail. They were oftentimes adorned with little cherries and axes. You can still find these cards for sale online and in antique stores.
In the early years of Old Bethpage Village, the recreated militia unit, the Hempstead Light Guard, would gather (sometimes in the snow), to salute General Washington, in similar activities.
So, what about the history of this day? As well as “President’s Day”? First, George Washington was born on February 11, 1731, under the older Julian Calendar. When Great Britain and her colonies adopted the Gregorian Calendar in 1752, his birthday shifted over to February 22, 1732. Apparently, throughout his life, his own birthday celebration dates varied. In February of 1832, on the centennial of Washington’s birth, both Houses of Congress adjourned to commemorate the anniversary. In 1856, Massachusetts became the first state to officially recognize Washington’s Birthday as a holiday. During the Civil War, both the Federal Union and rebellious Confederacy celebrated Washington’s birth, and equally tried to claim him for political and nationalistic purposes. In 1885, the re-united nation, officially recognized his birthday as a Federal holiday. Between 1968 and 1971, his “Official” birthday was moved to the third Monday of February. Ironically, this day never falls on his “actual” birthday of February 22. Congress has never “officially” denoted this day as “President’s Day”, but President Nixon issued an order which created a three-day weekend to honor all presidents. This was partly due to Abraham Lincoln’s birthday also falling in February. Therefore, many Americans (and many calendar makers), have now assumed the new title. Technically, it is still called “Washington’s Birthday.”
Sometimes I feel like Washington’s birthday is forgotten in the midst of the Wintertime. Since the Civil War’s conclusion, and the defeat of the Confederacy, Abraham Lincoln’s popularity skyrocketed into popular culture as well (and likely so). The “Gettysburg Address” soon replaced, “The Farewell Address”, as one of the most-known American speeches. I do not feel that Lincoln would want to sideline “his excellency” Washington, as Lincoln always used the founding of the nation as a guide during his presidency. Lincoln said in 1864, “We are striving to maintain the government and institutions of our fathers…stand fast to the Union and the old flag.” In that statement alone, Lincoln is referring to Washington and the Revolutionary War era. Lincoln, as well as many other leaders and presidents, have used their reverence for Washington as a compass. Still, George and Abe now share a birthday celebration (not to mention the February born William Henry Harrison and Ronald Reagan too!). Furthermore, they all must share with Valentine’s Day, as well as car sales, vacation deals, and a Winter Break in some parts of the United States. Poignantly, February is also “Black History Month”, which undoubtedly is tied to the stories of both Washington and Lincoln. As we grow as a nation and dive into our collective past, we must uncover all aspects of our shared history, and equally use that as our compass. I think it is fitting that “The Farewell Address”, the “Gettysburg Address”, and speeches by Frederick Douglass and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. can all be shared in the same spirit of history and growth.
Recently, I purchased a copy of “Washington’s Farewell Address” which was published in the early 1900s for use in classrooms. I plan on reading it quietly to myself on February 22. During the Civil War, Congress began to read the address aloud. The U.S. Senate still reads the address aloud yearly. It doesn’t usually get national attention.
Like our own family stories, photos, memories, and recipes, as Americans we should remember our origins. We should study our history, and celebrate our heroes. We should learn from their triumphs, as well as their faults and tribulations. Let’s celebrate the lives of our personal and national ancestors, and let’s be guided forward. Whether it be a beloved grandmother or great-great uncle, or General Washington or Dr. King, we continue to learn from these figures. Let’s wish them a “Happy Birthday!” And if saying “Happy Birthday” makes us better Americans, and more of us interested in our history, then I say raise a glass of madeira or cherry bounce, and toast, “Happy Birthday General Washington! Hip-Hip-Hurrah!!”