In 1885, Congress passed a law to recognize and celebrate George Washington’s birthday each February 22. On June 28, 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Holiday Act (Pub.L. 90—363) and moved four holidays—Memorial Day, Veteran’s Day, Columbus Day and Washington’s birthday—to the nearest Monday to create more three-day weekends for American workers. The bill took effect on January 1, 1971, though, Veteran’s Day was officially moved back to its original date on November 11, which reverted in 1978.
Most people have the misconception that by moving the date of the celebration of Washington’s birthday, that it combined the holiday to include Lincoln’s birthday with Washington’s (since they are both in February) or that the holiday was changed to include all presidents in the holiday. Neither is true. The holiday celebrates George Washington’s birthday.
So, today it NOT George Washington’s birthday—he was born February 22, 1732—and yet, we celebrate his birth.
In nearly every public poll, George Washington is listed as either the greatest president or polls in the second spot behind Abraham Lincoln. He was, of course, our first president, and many of those at the Constitutional Convention that drafted the document believed and wanted George Washington as the first president. He was described during those deliberations as the “first character.”
Washington set many precedents for the office and the country. He was there to set up the American government after the devastating War of Independence. His steady leadership guided our nation through the early years when our institutions were established. Just as important to his legacy was he return to private life after two terms in office. His old adversary, British King George III asked portrait artist Benjamin West what George Washington would do after the colonies won independence and West answered, “return to his farm.” King George replied in near disbelief that that would make Washington “the greatest man in the world.”
After Washington left the office in 1797, he did, in fact, return to his beloved Mount Vernon. Less than two years later he became ill after riding on horseback in freezing rain to inspect his plantation. He awoke having difficulty breathing. As was the practice, his doctor’s recommended bloodletting. His condition weakened and on Saturday, December 14, 1799, George Washington died at Mount Vernon. His last words were recorded as, “tis well.”
George Washington was buried on his plantation. He now rests in a tomb beside his beloved Martha. Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee put it best George Washing was, “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”