This last weekend we celebrated what is now called “Presidents Day,” a tradition that began in the late 19th century with efforts to commemorate George Washington on his birthday. It quickly became associated with President Abraham Lincoln as well, given the momentous events of the Civil War and his exemplary leadership. As the years have gone on, it has slowly morphed into a celebration of the commitment and leadership of all US presidents.
But truthfully, it has always been about us, not about them.
Presidents Day reminds of who we are—of where we came from. From the colonies we welded together a republic called the UNITED States of America, took the name “Americans,” and stood together behind the leadership of a single president.
Not a king or queen. Not a dictator or small group of military generals. Not a coalition of politicians led by a prime minister. A nation led by the president.
Presidents Day reminds us of what we have endured and lived through—beginning with the Revolutionary War and on down through the conflicts that defined us, including the great Civil War and the debilitating global wars in the 20th century. In all those conflicts we have benefited from the leadership of our presidents, and it is no surprise that some of our greatest chief executives have served their country in times of war.
The famous Presidents Day sales also remind us of our national commerce—and of the prosperity we have enjoyed in this country. We’ve lived through depressions and recessions, through droughts and natural disasters, through calamities of almost every sort. When there have been disasters or crises, we have depended upon the president to provide leadership, guidance, and the national persistence to see things through.
At their best, our presidents have helped us raise our sights, they have elevated our shared vision of the kind of nation we can strive to be, and they have articulated our highest aspirations. There is probably no more inspiring paragraph in all of American history than the words spoken by Abraham Lincoln in the last paragraph of his second inaugural address, now etched into the stone of the Lincoln Monument:
“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
Our society is shaped by the leadership of our presidents—across the decades, regardless of political affiliation, in war or peace, in economic upturns or slowdowns. While we honored Presidents Washington and Lincoln and all of our presidents this last weekend, it is Lincoln’s capacity to articulate words of hope, healing, and peace with passion and conviction that speaks to our hearts—reminding us of why Presidents Day matters.