OVP — In February we celebrate Presidents’ Day to honor all United States Presidents, but this was not the original intent of the holiday.
Washington’s birthday, according to the Gregorian calender, was Feb. 22 and was established as a federal holiday 1885 in recognition of President George Washington’s leadership in the founding of the United States. Known “The Father of his Country,” he was seen as a unifying force for the newly established United States and became the Electoral College’s unanimous choice to become its first President.
Later, Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, also in February, began to see established celebrations. Many states designated days to honor him and other Presidents in the years that followed.
As part of the Holiday Act 1971, holidays were consolidated and the day was set as the third Monday of February. Uniform Monday holidays were an attempt to create more three-day weekends for the nation’s workers. The term “Presidents’ Day” was appropriated in a deliberate attempt to change the holiday into one honoring multiple presidents. Colloquially, the day is now usually referred to as Presidents’ Day.
A bit of history about George Washington, from Zac Cunningham, manager of educational programs at Ferry Farm, Va., lends some clues as to why the county was so fervent in establishing his birthday as a national holiday.
Cunningham, a former Meigs County resident, received his master’s degree from Ohio University in American history and is currently working at Ferry Farm, the site of Washington’s home during his formative years from age 6 to his early 20s.
Ferry Farm was located across the river from the urban setting of Fredericksburg, Va. When George was 11, his father died and his family was left in financial difficulty. While technically George inherited the property, his mother managed the estate. Astute with finances, she was able to maintain the lifestyle of the upper class in the area, but there were little funds left for what would be considered normal expenditures on George’s education.
Unable to study abroad in England, he became self-educated in the colonies. In order to be part of the Virginia gentry, he learned to fence and dance in Fredericksburg. Washington joined the Masons, one of the earliest masonic lodges in the colonies, in Fredericksburg as well.
Because his father’s death had put financial strains on the family and Washington was unable to follow the normal route for a gentry of his class, his older step brother, Lawrence, suggests he join the Royal Navy. His mother adamantly disapproved and forbade his enlistment.
Lawrence then suggested surveying as a profession, and Washington was able to study and learn the skills at Ferry Farm. This profession brought him to the Ohio Valley on several surveying missions before the Revolution.
According to Cunningham, Washington had the experiences of actually being an American. He lived away from the coast and was not educated abroad. He was not well traveled outside the colonies.
“The only time he left the confines of what would become the U.S. was once to go to Barbados with Lawrence. Compared to other founding fathers such as Franklin who traveled extensively throughout Europe, Washington’s experience was limited to the colonies,” Cunningham said.
“Washington was educated in the colonies, heavily involved in Western lands, and spent a lot of time on the frontier away from British society along the coast. He was the fourth generation of his family to live in the colonies, his family having been in Virginia since the late 1600s.”
“What if Washington had joined the Royal Navy? It raises the question of who would have risen to the challenge of leadership in the colonies,” Cunningham said. “It took time for an American identity to emerge; saying you were an American was a logistics detail as the colonists still thought of themselves as British.”
Cunningham said Washington was truly one of the first “Americans” with his experiences deeply rooted in America. He went on to say it was, perhaps, by his example that others came to see themselves more as American than British.
History is full of “what ifs” in regard to this. What if his father hadn’t died and he had received a European education, would he have been as sympathetic to the colonists’ cause? And had he joined the Royal Navy, he may have excelled as a British officer and been responsible for the defeat of the colonists instead of leading them to independence.
Always a reluctant president, Washington finished his second term as the first President of the United States in 1797. He refused to run for a third term, concerned that the security of a monarchy was still wished by some for the young nation, and weary of the political infighting. Instead, he retired to his home of Mount Vernon, where he died two years later on Dec. 14, 1799 at age 67.
For more information on Ferry Farm, visit www.kenmore.org. By linking to the Lives and Legacies Blog, you can follow the discovers at Ferry Farm and learn more interesting facts about Washington and life in the colonies via posts by Cunningham.
Contact Lorna Hart at 740-992-2155 Ext. 2551.
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