Geroge Washington and Abraham Lincoln are the only American
presidents whose birthdays are widely celebrated as legal holidays. Why are
these two presidents especially honored? The answer is that, without their wise
leadership, the United States of America would probably not exist today. Both
men lived during critical periods in American history, and both met the challenge
of their times with great courage and wisdom. Washington faced the dangers of
being a revolutionary to help the British colonies win their independence
from England. Less than 100 years later, Lincoln declared war on the Southern
states to keep the young nation from dividing in two.
But Washington and Lincoln are remembered not only for their political accomplishments. Both men are American heroes, symbols of traits and ideals which are much admired by the nation they helped to build.
George Washington, commonly called the father of his country, was born in 1732. The son of wealthy Virginia planter, he was privately educated and trained to be a surveyor. But as an officer in the French and Indian War, he became interested in military leadership.
In 1759, Washington married a widow named Martha Cutis, who later became famous as a gracious hostess in the first president's home. After his marriage, he returned to his Virginia plantation, Mount Vernon, to live the life of a gentleman farmer. He also became involved in colonial opposition to British policies in America.
By 1775, relations with England had become so bad that the colonists were ready to fight for their independence. The Continental Congress named Washington commander in chief of the revolutionary army. His job was very difficult. His army was small, poorly fed, and inadequately clothed. The men suffered greatly during terribly cold winters. While begging for more men and supplies, Washington had to fight the Revolutionary war with poorly equipped, untrained solders. He never asked for and never received any salary for the job he performed. In fact, he often spent his own money to buy clothing for his men and send aid to their families. Washington brought to the battlefield great military ability and a noble character.
Washington was the first man not a king whose birthday was publicly celebrated during his lifetime. Before the colonies declared their independence, celebrations honoring the birthdays of British rulers were customary. After the Declaration of Independence, the American people ignored royal birthdays and began instead to celebrate General Washington's birthday. This custom started in 1778 during the army's cold, snowy winter at Valley Forge, when one of the military bands marched to Washington's headquarters and played for him.
When the war ended in 1783, Washington eagerly returned to Mount Vernon. But his peaceful retirement was interrupted when he was unanimously chosen first president of the United States. He took office in 1789 and was reelected in 1792. In 1796, he refused a third term and retired from political life. he died two years later and was buried at Mount Vernon, which one million tourists visit every year. Shortly after his death, Washington was praised in these famous words: "First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen."
To the American people, Washington symbolizes dignity, statesmanship, and, above all, honesty. The famous cherry tree story, which was invented by Washington's first biographer, has become a lesson in morals for all American school children. The story goes like this: When George Washington was about six years old, his father gave him a hatchet, which the little boy loved to play with. One day, he tried the edge of his hatchet on his father's favorite young cherry tree and did enough damage to kill the tree. Next morning, his father noticed the damage and ran into the house shouting,"George, do you know who killed that beautiful cherry tree...in the garden?" George's famous reply was,"I can't tell a lie, Pa, you know I can't tell a lie. I cut it with my hatchet. "His father, pleased with the courage and honesty, quickly forgave him.
Because of this story, traditional desserts on Washington's birthday are cherry pie or a log-shaped cake decorated with cherries. Washington's birthday is a legal holiday throughout the U.S.A. It is celebrated on the third Monday in February. In some states, this date is called Presidents' Day and honors both Washington and Lincoln,
Although Americans admire George Washington, the greatest of all American heroes is certainly Abraham Lincoln. Why? Basic to the American philosophy is the idea that a person who is honest and hardworking can achieve success no matter how humble his or her beginnings. Lincoln is a perfect example of a self-made man.
Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809 in a log cabin in Kentucky. His parents were uneducated and poor. Although Lincoln eventually became a lawyer, he had very little formal education. But he did have a brilliant mind and great moral strength. He had the courage to do what he felt was right, no matter what the sacrifice. In 1860, shortly before the Civil War began, he said, "Let us have faith that right makes might; and in that faith let us to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it."
Elected to the presidency in 1860 and reelected in 1864, Lincoln was the first successful presidential candidate nominated by the Republican Party. During his term in office, the American Civil War was fought. The issues were slavery and secession. In the agricultural Southern states, Negroes forcibly brought from Africa were used as slaves to grow tobacco and cotton and do housework. In the industrial North, where there were only small farms, the economy had little use for large numbers of agricultural workers. Northerners disapproved of slavery as being inhumane. In order to protect their right to keep slaves, the Southern leaders decided that the Southern states should secede from the Union and form a separate nation-the Confederate States of America.
Lincoln felt that the Union had to be saved. In 1860, the United States was the only important democracy in the world. Self-government would be proved a failure if the nation could be destroyed by a minority of its own citizens. Lincoln chose to lead the country into a civil war rather than allow the South to secede.
In 1858, Lincoln had said, "A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free." In 1860, the United States was, indeed, "a house divided." There were 33 states at that time. Eighteen of them did not allow slavery, and 15 of them did. The Civil War began in April of 1861, only a few months after Lincoln's inauguration as president. It began when Lincoln declared secession illegal and sent military troops to keep federal possession of a United States government fort located in the Charleston, South Carolina harbor. In terms of human suffering, the Civil War was the most costly war the United States has ever been involved in. Emotionally, it was quite painful, too, often breaking up friendships and even families when loyalties were on opposite sides. About one million soldiers were killed or wounded. The death toll, from battle or from disease, totaled more than 500,000. By the end of the war, the economy of the South was in ruins, and a great deal of property had been destroyed. On April 9, 1865, General Lee, the Confederate commander in chief, surrendered to General Grant, the Union commander. It took until May 26 before the word reached all of the generals in the field, and the battle between the North and the South was finally over.
During the war, Lincoln issued the famous Emancipation Proclamation, declaring all slaves in the Confederate states to be free. After the war, the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution was adopted. It freed all slaves throughout the nation.
Because he was an excellent writer who could express his beliefs clearly and with great emotional force, Lincoln was able to make Northerners understand why they were fighting a civil war. Parts of his speeches are still memorized by school children because they express in beautiful language the highest ideals of American democracy.
In 1863, while dedicating a national cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Lincoln concluded his shortest and most famous speech with the following wish: "...that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth."
On April 14, 1865, less than a week after Lee's surrender, Lincoln attended a theatrical performance at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. Shortly after 10 P.M. a gunshot rang through the crowded auditorium. John Wilkes Booth, a well-known actor and Southern sympathizer, had shot the president in the head. Lincoln was carried unconscious to a neighboring house, where he died early the following morning.
Because Lincoln had spent most of his adult years in Illinois, his body was brought back to his home state and buried in Springfield. Now there is a huge monument above the spot where Lincoln, his wife, and three of their four sons are buried.
In about 30 states, Lincoln's birthday is a legal holiday, celebrated on February 12 or on the first or third Monday in February. Most of the Southern states do not celebrate Lincoln's birthday.
The names and faces of both Washington and Lincoln are
an important part of American culture. Washington is the only president for
whom a state is named. And, of course, on the other side the country lies the
nation's capital city, also named Washington. Throughout the U.S.A,. Cities,
towns, streets, schools, bridges, and other structures are called Washington
or Lincoln. In Washington D.C,. beautiful monuments have been dedicated to these
Portraits of them decorate the walls of many public buildings. Moreover, portraits of Washington and Lincoln appear on the front of U.S coins and bills. Washington's picture is on the quarter and the $1 bill; Lincoln's is on the penny and the $5 bill. To Americans, the faces of Washington and Lincoln are as familiar and inspiring as their courageous deeds.