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The Meaning of George Washington’s Birthday



On the third Monday in February, Americans set aside a day to honor and celebrate the birthday of America’s first president. Or that’s the idea. Over time, the significance of the day has waned, as we now celebrate Presidents’ Day sales more than we do the presidents. And although the federal holiday remains “Washington’s Birthday,” the change in the popular conception of the day to “Presidents’ Day” has caused some confusion regarding whether we are honoring only Washington (and perhaps his fellow February giant, Lincoln), or all presidents, regardless of merit. So why should a nation that loves equality single out one man for special honors?

In this ebook, we examine the words and deeds of the “Father of Our Country” and consider the qualities of leadership needed for the flourishing of our nation. The first chapter explores the origins and traditions of celebrating George Washington’s birthday, dating from the very beginnings of our republic. The second chapter looks at the life and career of Washington: his early education and military career; his time taking command—and relinquishing it—during the Revolutionary War; and his leadership as America’s first president. The final chapter raises questions about how we, 200 years removed, are to remember Washington. Can we say with those who came before that Washington is, in the words of Henry Lee, still “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen”?

Each selection includes a brief introduction by the editors with guiding questions for discussion.

George Washington’s Birthday: An American Holiday

The Origins and Traditions of George Washington’s Birthday Holiday
Abraham Lincoln, “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions”
Daniel Webster, “The Character of Washington”
John Greenleaf Whittier, “The Vow of Washington”
Phillis Wheatley, “To His Excellency General Washington”
Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., “Ode for Washington’s Birthday”
Charles W. Eliot, “Washington and Our Schools and Colleges”
Edwin Markham, “Washington the Nation Builder”
Herbert Hoover, Address to a Joint Session of Congress

Father of Our Country: The Career of George Washington

A Short Biography of George Washington
Appendix: H. B. Carrington, Historical Memorabilia of Washington

A. How Washington Became Washington: Early Education and Military Career
Mason Locke Weems, “The Fable of George Washington and the Cherry Tree”
George Washington, “Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation”
Noemie Emery, “Young Washington and Cato,” from Washington: A Biography
Myron Magnet, “The Rise of Washington,” from “Washingtonianism”

B. How Washington Became Great: His Excellency General Washington
(1) Taking Command
Washington Irving, “The First Continental Congress”
Washington Irving, “The Appointment of General Washington”
George Washington, Letter to Martha Washington, June 18, 1775

(2) Commanding: Washington in His Glory
Thomas Paine, The Crisis, No. 1
Myron Magnet, “When George Washington Became Great”
George Washington, Address on the Newburgh Conspiracy
Claude C. Robin, “A Frenchman’s Estimate of Washington in 1781”

(3) Surrendering Command: Washington Goes Home
George Washington, Farewell Address to the Armies of the United States
George Washington, Farewell Address to the Continental Congress
James McHenry and John Marshall, Letters on Washington’s Resignation
George Washington, Letter to the Marquis de Lafayette, February 1, 1784

C. President Washington
(1) Constituting the Republic
Myron Magnet, “Washington and the Constitutional Convention,” from “Washingtonianism”
George Washington, Letter to Henry Lee in Congress on Shays’ Rebellion

(2) Becoming President
Gouverneur Morris, Letter to George Washington, October 30, 1787
Edward Everett Hale, “Washington’s Inauguration”
George Washington, First Inaugural Address

(3) Being President
Myron Magnet, “The Trials and Triumphs of Presiding,” from “Washingtonianism”
George Washington, Letter to the Hebrew Congregation
George Washington, Thanksgiving Proclamation
George Washington, Farewell Address

(4) The Death of a Hero
Henry Lee, “George Washington! A Funeral Oration on His Death”
Abigail Adams, Letter to Mary Cranch, December 22, 1799

Washington Assessed and Remembered

A. Washington’s Greatness 
Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Walter Jones, January 2, 1814
Edwin P. Whipple, “The Genius of Washington” 
Henry Brooks Adams, “A Trip to Mount Vernon,” from Democracy: An American Novel
Noemie Emery, “The Passionate Bedrock of Genius,” from Washington: A Biography
Gordon S. Wood, “The Greatness of George Washington”

B. Washington as Inspiration
Henry Armitt Brown, “Valley Forge” 
Jane Addams, “Greatness and Commemoration”
Mary Antin, “Making an American,” from The Promised Land
Franklin D. Roosevelt, Radio Address on Washington’s Birthday

C. A Hero for Our Time?
Richard Brookhiser, “Introduction,” from Founding Father
Harvey Mansfield, “George Washington, Model Executive?”
Allen C. Guelzo, “Hero, Standing”
Carl Sandburg, “Washington Monument by Night”

APPENDIX:  Diana Schaub, “The Wisdom of George Washington”

ABOUT THE COVER: Rembrandt Peale, George Washington, c. 1858

WATCH: The WSPWH editors—with Richard Brookhiser (author, George Washington on Leadership), Harvey Mansfield (Harvard University), and Steven F. Hayward (Claremont Institute)—reflect on the significance of celebrating George Washington’s Birthday.

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