For the past fifty-one years, “Presidents’ Day” has been celebrated on the third Monday in February, courtesy of the “Uniform Monday Holiday Act” – legislation that increased the number of three-day holidays. And while the act didn’t officially combine Abraham Lincoln’s and George Washington’s birthdays into one, it had the same effect – in addition to giving license to honor all United States’ presidents all at once.
Of course, not all presidents deserve a holiday, and given the distinction of being the first, coupled with what he accomplished and established during his remarkable life, it’s an easy case to make that of all our presidents, George Washington is most deserving of this honor.
It was the historian James Thomas Flexner who called our nation’s first chief executive the “indispensable man,” and for good reason.
With no General Washington leading and holding the ragtag colonists together in the American Revolution, there would be no independent America. He was the right man at the right moment. He was brave, courageous and bold. He wasn’t perfect, and not by a lot. He lost his shares of battles but he and his men fought valiantly, never gave up, and in the end, they won the war and helped birth the new nation.
Washington’s greatness can also be demonstrated in his own sense of self-restraint. The colonists wanted him to be king – but he declined, citing the insidious, tyrannical and addicting nature of such power. After eight years in office, he easily could have won a third term, but he declined and retired to his Mount Vernon estate on the banks of the Potomac.
Washington was a man who believed in moderation in all things – especially executive and elected power.
Where did he develop such ideas and principles? To be sure, it was George Washington’s strong and abiding Christian faith that helped shaped him through his decades of difficult, trying and successful years of public service.
When he was preparing to leave home as a young man, his mother wrote:
“Remember that God is our only sure trust. To him, I commend you … My son, neglect not the duty of secret prayer.”
George Washington was also an evangelist for the Christian faith. Once speaking with non-believing members of a Delaware Indian tribe, he told them accepting the Gospel “will make you a greater and happier people than you are.”
Even in his official military capacity, he was never shy about sharing his deeply held faith. At the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, he wrote the following to the governors of the thirteen colonies:
“I now make it my earnest prayer that God would have you, and the State over which you preside, in His holy protection … that He would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all to do justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that charity, humility, and pacific temper of mind, which were the characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed religion, and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy nation.”
He would later write:
“It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible.”
Family, friends and servants would reveal that George Washington began each of his days reading God’s Word – and would conclude each evening before retiring to bed doing the same. He was often seen kneeling before an open Bible in his library or study.
It’s all too easy to reduce our nation’s first president to an ancient figure of history and a stoic face on our one-dollar bill. In fact, simply combining recognition of his birthday into a single day celebrating all the rest who held the same office gives George Washington short shrift. Our children need to know of his greatness and the sacrifices he made.
Most important, though, it’s good to be reminded that it was Washington’s faith in Jesus that shaped, motivated and compelled him to action. That’s why high atop the obelisk built in his honor at the center of the National Mall is the Latin phrase “Laus Deo,” which means “Praise be to God.”
Praise be to God for the life and legacy of President George Washington.
Photo from Shutterstock.