The federal government says that George Washington's Birthday is the holiday that is celebrated on the third Monday of February. But many Americans think that this holiday is now called "Presidents' Day" in honor of both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, who were both born on February 22 and 12.
George Washington, the first president of the United States of America, is often referred to as the “Father of Our Country.” Born February 22, 1732, in Virginia, he grew to be a natural leader- instrumental in winning America's independence from Britain in the Revolutionary War and creating a united nation out of a conglomeration of struggling colonies and territories.
As a boy, George helped manage his parents’ plantation in Ferry Farm, Virginia. He observed the plantation’s black slaves at work, and learned about planting and crops. George attended school for only 7 or 8 years, and was especially interested in math. His father wanted to send him to England for more education, but when George was eleven, his father died, and George was unable to continue his studies. His interest in military life began early. At fourteen he longed to join the British Royal Navy, but his mother would not give him permission. He then became interested in surveying, a profession in which he could apply his math skills and explore the frontier as he mapped out new settlements. Over the next five years he became a master surveyor, laying the plans for many new towns and farms. By 1750 he had also acquired over 1,000 acres of land for himself.
Shortly after his twentieth birthday, Washington began serving in the army of King George III of England, who ruled over the thirteen colonies and much of the surrounding territories. By twenty-two Washington was a lieutenant colonel and was put in command of a troop of soldiers who fought against the French in the French and Indian War.
While serving under the King, Washington grew resentful of the unfair treatment of colonial soldiers and officers, who received lower pay and poorer supplies and training than regular British troops. When the King lowered the ranks of all colonial officers, Washington resigned in anger. Later he rejoined to learn military tactics from a renowned general.
At the end of the French and Indian War, Washington returned to Virginia and spent many years as a farmer, businessman, and Virginia legislator. In 1759 he married Martha Dandridge Custis, a widow with two children.
By the late 1760s, many colonists began to want their freedom, and to live under their own rule, not under the rule of a faraway king and a British militia. They felt that the taxes, laws, and punishments that the King imposed on them were unfair. In 1773, a local rebellion against high taxes, called the Boston Tea Party, helped to spark the American Revolution. In this rebellion, colonists raided British ships in Boston Harbor and tossed the cargo of tea into the water. When the British closed Boston Harbor as punishment, Washington spoke out vehemently.
In 1774, Washington attended the first Continental Congress where he and other representatives approved a trade boycott of all British goods. Britain tightened its control over the colonies, and in 1775 the Revolutionary War began. Washington was elected Commander in Chief of the Continental Army. On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence, claiming America’s freedom from British rule, but it would be seven more years before that independence was won.
Washington led the inexperienced troops of the Continental Army against the British forces during the harsh years of war, until the colonists prevailed and won their independence in 1783. History books recount the hardships of freezing winters, lack of food, discouragement, and desertions during those years of war. They describe Washington’s strong leadership and determination that were instrumental in the eventual victory.
In 1786, Washington was elected president of the Constitutional Convention, a meeting of representatives from each state to draft a constitution for the new nation. Laws written into the Constitution called for a President, and George Washington was considered the natural choice. He was elected, and though Washington was reluctant, he agreed to serve his country as the first President of the United States. On April 30, 1789, at the age of 57, Washington was sworn into office. He moved from Mount Vernon in Virginia to New York City, then the capital of the United States. The trip took a week by horse and carriage. All along the way, people waited eagerly to glimpse the Revolutionary War general and their first President.
Washington accepted two terms as president, but turned down a third term wishing only to retire to his beautiful family home, Mount Vernon. By the time Washington left office, there were 16 states in the Union, and the U.S. Capitol building was being constructed in the newly established District of Columbia.
During his later years, Washington remained active in politics, and he died on December 14, 1799. His memory is evident in the multitude of places in the United States that bear his name, including the United States Capitol, Washington, D.C.
While Washington was alive, legends grew up about him. One legend says that he was so strong that he could throw a silver dollar across the Potomac River. Some Americans argue that this could be a true story, because parts of the Potomac River, they say, were extremely narrow a few hundred years ago! Another story tells of a time when George Washington was young, and his father gave him a hatchet. Presumably, George tried to cut down a cherry tree with it. His father noticed the cuts on the tree, and asked his son how they got there. “I cannot tell a lie,” George confessed. “I did it with my hatchet.” This story has never been proven, but Americans pass it down to their children as a lesson in honesty. George Washington came to represent honesty, and cherry pies have become a favorite food associated with his birthday holiday.
Americans began celebrating Washington’s birthday from the time of the Revolutionary War. They were grateful for a strong leader who had proven that democracy was a feasible way to govern the growing country. Today, some communities observe the holiday by staging pageants and reenactments of important milestones in Washington’s life. Also, the holiday has taken on a commercial side. Many shopping malls and stores run Presidents’ Day sales to attract shoppers who have the day off from work or school.