Although President’s Day is now celebrated on the third Monday of February, the holiday originated out of a celebration of George Washington’s birthday on February 22. Washington’s birthday was made a holiday for government offices in the Capitol in 1879, expanding to include all federal offices in 1885. With Abraham Lincoln’s birthday so close in time (February 12) many states began celebrating Presidents’ Day instead. A federal holiday celebrating all past presidents was created out of the Uniform Federal Holidays Act of 1971. In today’s post, we examine Theodore Roosevelt’s own celebration of our nation’s first president, George Washington.
Roosevelt often spoke of George Washington's influence - not just on America, but on his own thinking as a leader as well. On February 22, 1896, Roosevelt gave the commemorative address at a celebration of Washington’s birth at the Union League Club in Chicago. In addition to photos and quotes of the leader, the evening’s program also included sheet music for the song “America.” While we do not have a record of the speech Roosevelt gave that evening, other letters and speeches provide insight into Roosevelt's thoughts on Washington.
Roosevelt gave an address to the Grand Lodge of Freemasons of Pennsylvania in 1912. Washington, whom Roosevelt called “the greatest mason who ever lived,” was inducted as a member 150 years earlier. Not only did Washington fight for independence, but he also “put down disorder and realized that it could only be prevented from recurring by righting any wrongs that had caused it.” Roosevelt said that Washington's honesty, courage, and common sense should serve as a model to solve current social problems.
In a 1912 letter to Silas McBee, Roosevelt wrote of his admiration for the nation’s first president, calling him the "first American." Although Roosevelt did not like to compare great men, he said, Washington "was both soldier and statesman as well as far seeing and lofty minded patriot" whereas "Lincoln was not the soldier."
Despite Abraham Lincoln's lack of military background, Roosevelt still placed him alongside Washington as visionaries who helped unify the nation and solidify American thought and politics. In an article titled "American virtues" Roosevelt urged each of his readers to study the lives of these men, to find inspiration "toward things higher and nobler":
In what ways do you see former presidents' influence on Theodore Roosevelt? To what things higher and nobler might we aspire because of him and our other presidents?