Monday, Oct 20, 2014
Columns

Taft: Celebrating the history of Presidents Day


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Too late for Lincoln's birthday and too soon for Washington's, Presidents Day honoring - in the minds of most people - both of those great former leaders of our country will be celebrated Monday. But like so many things created by government, there is as much confusion about the day today as there was at its inception in 1968 - or should that be 1971?.

Americans always have had a hard time nailing down the whole national holiday thing. Before 1870 there were no federal holidays. But many states observed New Year's Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day as holidays. So many federal government workers were absent on those days that in 1870 Congress finally declared them to be federal holidays.

Until then there hadn't been a movement to name a national holiday for George Washington, though veneration for the leader of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War and the new nation's first president was evidenced in celebrations of the centennial anniversary of his birth in 1832, the laying of the cornerstone of the Washington Monument in 1848, and the use of his image on U.S. currency and stamps.

It was nearly a decade after the first four national holidays were approved that Sen. Steven Dorsey of Arkansas proposed adding Washington's birth date of Feb. 22 to the list. It was approved by Congress in 1879 and was instigated in 1880 - but only for federal workers in the District of Columbia! Five years later the holiday was extended to all (then) 38 states.

While there are differences of opinion on which of the 43 men who have served as presidents (Grover Cleveland served two non-consecutive terms) should be considered good, bad or indifferent chief executives, most historians would agree the two greatest have been Washington and Lincoln. And although Abraham Lincoln's birthday on Feb. 12 is a holiday in many states, it never has been a national holiday for the statesman remembered best for his proclamation freeing the slaves and for conducting the war that ultimately preserved the union.

Passage by Congress of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act in 1968 changed the date for the celebration of most national holidays to a fixed Monday in the month in which they traditionally occur. The idea was to avoid the interruption of the work week and to give federal workers a long weekend.

Some congressmen, such as Illinois Sen. Robert McClory and others who had wanted Lincoln's birthday to be a national holiday, suggested that, because the third Monday of February selected by the new law for celebrating Washington's birthday falls between George's and Abe's birth dates, it should be called Presidents Day and honor both leaders. But when President Nixon signed the implementing order in 1971, it was President's Day in honor of Washington.

Nevertheless, many folks still believe Presidents Day honors both Washington and Lincoln, and some say the day is a time to recognize the contributions of all the presidents. A majority don't care and few pay any attention to the reasons why. The few ceremonies which recall the accomplishments of Washington and Lincoln will mention one of the major factors forming the character that undergirded the admirable decisions each made: - their religious faith.

Washington grew up in an Anglican family in which daily devotions were the practice. After his father died when George was 11 years old, his mother asked him to lead those devotions. It was a practice he followed in his own home after he married.

The young Virginian came to know the Bible and church ritual so well that when he was a colonel in the militia at age 23 he was asked to conduct the burial service for British Gen. Edward Braddock, who had been killed in the Battle of Monongahela during the French and Indian War. Later, he was elected warden of the Truro Parish in Pohick, Va., where he attended services regularly despite the four hour carriage drive from his farm.

In his book, "The Presidents: Men of Faith," Bliss Isely notes Washington's diary reveals that, after the English parliament passed the oppressive Boston Port bill, he spent the entire day in church to fast and pray. As a general, he always saw that a chaplain was assigned to every regiment. As president, he often asked the nation to join in a day of prayer - especially prayers of thanksgiving .

Washington's farewell address to Congress included the warning: "Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle," which he declared to be the base of a government of the people.

Abraham Lincoln grew up reading the Bible and the Rev. Mason "Parson" Weems' "Life of Washington." Lincoln shared many of Washington's convictions and modeled his famous speeches on Biblical writings. He titled his debate speech with Sen. Stephen A. Douglas with a quote from Jesus: "A house divided against itself shall not stand."

Historian William J. Wolf, in "The Religion of Abraham Lincoln," said of the Kentucky-born lawyer: "No President has ever had the detailed knowledge of the Bible that Lincoln had. No President has ever woven its thoughts and its rhythms into the warp and woof of his state papers as he did."

Raised in a Baptist home and an attendee at his wife's Presbyterian Church after their marriage, Lincoln prayed much during the Civil War and wrote that he authored the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves in answer to prayer.

Lincoln told his friends at the railroad station to see him off to take office as president: "Without the assistance of that Divine Being who ever attended him (Washington), I cannot succeed. With that assistance, I cannot fail."

At least there should be no confusion about the faith of either of the two great presidents, Washington or Lincoln, whenever they are celebrated.

Adon Taft was for 37 years religion editor of the Miami Herald and taught social studies at Miami-Dade Community College. Now retired, he lives in Brooksville.

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