On Monday we will celebrate what is now called “Presidents Day,” although officially the federal holiday is called “Washington’s Birthday.” Because both Abraham Lincoln and George Washington have February birthdays, the informal designation of the third Monday in February now honors all of our presidents, but like so much else it is anchored by General George.

Washington left office in 1797 and died in 1799. It wasn’t until 1885 that a holiday was created commemorating his leadership. I suppose one could ask, “What took them so long?” But let’s ask a different question entirely: What was it about the character and leadership of our first president that led his fellow citizens to want to name a day in his honor four decades after his death?

It’s really quite remarkable that from that extraordinary time period in which our nation was born, the memory of Washington’s leadership still stands the tallest. Why do we continue to honor and celebrate this 18th-century man?

Perhaps one of the reasons is that as the first president, he demonstrated that personal integrity is right at the heart of great leadership—and essential for good government. The values and principles that he considered his ideals were what he sought to encode into the U.S. presidency.

Washington came into the presidency as a military strategist and leader, but in his careful stewardship of the establishing precedents and practices that shaped our government and society, he demonstrated the capacity for both thought and action. Americans have benefited from the careful, balanced approach that he brought to the presidency for more than 200 years. 

And he made it personal: the commitments he made to the new nation went far beyond his professional interests. He embraced the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the lofty ambitions of the United States Constitution. He knew firsthand the meaning of pledging to his fellow framers “our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” He spoke eloquently of this when he said, “The consideration that human happiness and moral duty are inseparably connected, will always continue to prompt me to promote the progress of the former, by inculcating the practice of the latter.” Washington was exemplary in the commitments he made to our nation. 

Decades after his death, the citizens who sought to establish a holiday in the memory of George Washington still found that the example of his life pointed to our country’s highest aspirations. He called us to be our very best selves, to live exemplary lives, and to be true to America. 

This is what we celebrate on Presidents Day. With gratitude.