Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Presidents’ Day: Whom Does It Honor?

       As you probably know Presidents Day is a Federal Holiday that is celebrated on the third Monday in February.  When I was growing up Presidents’ Day didn’t exist.  As, a matter of fact, the day we now call Presidents’ Day the Federal Government officially calls Washington’s Birthday.  This is what I remember as a kid in school. 

       Actually February was a month I – if not most kids – looked forward to the most out of the school year (excepting maybe June which meant the end of the school year).  I say that because it was the only month that had two “holidays”.  We – I— looked forward to being off from school on Lincoln’s Birthday, which was February 12 and Washington’s Birthday, which was February 22.  I do realize that Lincoln’s birthday was never a Federal holiday, but it was observed as a legal holiday in a number of states for some time.  And some states that celebrate Washington's Birthday still also recognize Lincoln's Birthday as a separate legal holiday.  (Washington's Birthday became an official federal holiday in 1885 after President Chester A. Arthur signed a bill making it such.)

       I also remember that these days were not always celebrated on a Monday, but on the day of the week on which they actually fell.  The Monday celebration didn’t begin until 1971 as a result of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act that Congress passed and which was signed into law in 1968, but taking effect January 1, 1971.  This moved the official observance of Washington’s Birthday to the third Monday in February.
Though still on the “books” as Washington’s Birthday, the holiday is traditionally called Presidents’ Day, because of the common belief that it honored both Presidents Washington and Lincoln, seeing as how it fell after Lincoln’s birthday, and before Washington’s, but actually coincides with neither.   Some states which had previously celebrated Lincoln’s Birthday dropped the observance after the Federal reform supporting the notion that the two presidential birthdays had been combined.

       So, whose day is it?

       Is it a day to celebrate George Washington or Abraham Lincoln – or both?  Or, should Presidents’ Day honor more than just these two presidents?

       The idea of a Presidents’ Day to honor more than one president is not a new one.  In 1951 the "President's Day National Committee" was formed by Harold Stonebridge Fischer of Compton, California, who became its National Executive Director for the next two decades.  The purpose was not to honor any particular President, but to honor the office of the Presidency.  Long story short, it never happened.

       Now a day to honor the presidency of the United States, or presidents as a whole is not a bad idea.  Consider the two presidents that are presumably “honored” on Presidents’ Day. 

      George Washington, our first president was certainly a man of accomplishment.  He is known as the “Father of Our Country”, and arguably, it could be said that without his leadership in the Revolutionary War, there would be no United States of America.

       And, Abraham Lincoln, the president during a time that may have been the worse strife for America, notably the Civil War (or the War Between the States, as it is also commonly called), certainly risked his life in the pursuit of holding our nation together.  I won’t get into speculation of what this land would be like if two countries existed on this American soil – a United States of America and a Confederate States of America – that is for another writer or another time.  President Lincoln’s assassination speaks of the consequences that one could face holding down the office of the President of the United States.

       But, are these the only two Presidents that should have some honor or recognition?

       How about the other presidents who lost their lives to this job?  There were James Garfield, William McKinley and John F. Kennedy, all of whom were taken by an assassin’s bullet. (And yes, I do remember where I was on the day President Kennedy was assassinated.)  These, of course, are the extreme.  But, are there other Presidents worth honoring?

       Being President of the United States is a stressful job.  Compare pictures of President Obama today with pictures of him when he first took office.  It looks as if he aged quite a lot in these past few years.
 I’ve noticed this with other Presidents as well.  Noticeably, the job takes a lot out of you.  Sometimes you have to make decisions that hold the very fate of the nation – and the lives of citizens –at risk.   What President wouldn’t be under a lot of stress having to send soldiers into war – or worrying how to protect citizens against terrorists?

        Look at the administrations of many of the Presidents and see the issues they had to deal with through their presidency – war, civil rights, and social reform – many of the same issues that are being dealt with today.  It certainly is stressful having to deal with these issues, hoping that the decisions you make are more helpful to the welfare of the country than detrimental.  Yes, they sometimes have to make such hard decisions.

       Thomas Jefferson had to send a fledgling navy to stave off the pirates waylaying American ships along the Barbary Coast of Africa.  This from a man who had been opposed earlier in his political career to funding a navy for anything more than a coastal defense.

       James Monroe introduced the Monroe Doctrine which proclaimed the Americas should be free from future European colonization and free from European interference in sovereign countries' affairs.  The Monroe Doctrine held that the United States considered the Western Hemisphere as no longer a place for European colonization; that any future effort to gain further political control in the hemisphere or to violate the independence of existing states would be treated as an act of hostility.  This, in some ways, helped in the United States expansion across North America, primarily unfettered, along with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.  But, mainly, through it the United States was the first nation to set an example to the rest of the world for its support of the "cause of liberty and humanity."

       There was James Polk, a President possibly not as well-known as some others, whose unpopular decision to go to war with Mexico ultimately gained for America the states of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico.

       Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt who assumed the presidency upon the death of President McKinley became known as "trust-buster" for his aggressive attacks on trusts (curbing the power of large corporations) during his two terms.  Roosevelt was the force behind the completion of the Panama Canal.  He sent the Great White Fleet on a world tour to demonstrate American power.  He also negotiated an end to the Russo-Japanese War, for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize – the first American to win the Nobel Prize in any field.

       And then there is Harry "The buck stops here" Truman who made what very well may have been the most controversial decision in modern history – the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

       And Lyndon Johnson, another Vice-President who became President after the man he served was assassinated. Because his containment policy required America to make a serious effort to stop all Communist expansion, he expanded the numbers and roles of the American military in Vietnam.

       And let’s not forget “The Great Communicator”, Ronald Reagan who revitalized the American military, and who played a major role in ending the Cold War.

       George W. Bush presided over a presidency that saw quite possibly the most devastating attack ever on U. S. citizens on American soil.

       I’ve mentioned only a small number of the 43 Presidents (Grover Cleveland served two non-consecutive terms filling the roles of 22nd and 24th President) who have served in this great office—an office that at times in history has possibly been the most important in the world.

      Yes, the job of the President of the United States of America is a stressful one.  And I think it is an office worth honoring. 
       None of these men were or are perfect.  Some came from humble beginnings – some from wealth.  Some had great accomplishments—some not so great.  You may like some and dislike some.  But the thing is they all stepped into an office where sometimes the decisions they made held fates in the balance.  And, sometimes, they and their decisions were unappreciated.

      Whether history looks upon them as great Presidents or ineffective Presidents, these men all need to be respected.  I think they all made decisions that they felt were the right decisions at the time.  As Harry S. Truman himself wrote later in life about his decision to use the atomic bomb, "I knew what I was doing when I stopped the war ... I have no regrets and, under the same circumstances, I would do it again."

      I think all of these men truly believed that what they were doing was best for the country even though history may have proved some wrong.  Despite the thanklessness that sometimes came with the job, I think they loved what they were doing.  You would have to love it to step into such a pressure-filled job.

      These men also all proved what I was told as a child, that in this country anyone (who was born here) could grow up to become President of the United States of America – perhaps the greatest job on the face of the Earth.
And that is something to think about.

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