Hauenstein speaker: What we can learn from Presidents Day
The origins of the Presidents Day holiday can be traced to a young nation honoring one of its Founding Fathers, George Washington. But the day most associated with Washington and Abraham Lincoln serves as a reminder to the importance of the presidency and how transformative the role was in the age’s politics, said Lindsay Chervinsky, scholar, author and lecturer.
The Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies welcomed Chervinsky as its speaker for its Presidents Day celebration on February 23 to discuss the historical roots of the federal holiday and Washington’s importance in establishing the role of president for his successors.
“My goal is to show why Presidents Day really does matter, what we need to learn from it, what we can celebrate and what it reminds us about American society and the importance the institutions play in our daily life,” said Chervinsky, author of “The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution.”
Joined on the Loosemore Auditorium stage by moderator Gleaves Whitney, executive director of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation, Chervinsky explained the day should perhaps be called Presidency Day and focus on the role of the office.
“The presidency represents us on the global stage,” said Chervinsky. “It has the ability to shape our culture and our values. It wields enormous authority over domestic affairs and foreign policy, and is something that we can’t get away from on a day-to-day basis. The presidency is also wrapped up in our very best and very worst moments."
Almost from the start of the American Revolution, colonists celebrated Washington’s birthday (February 22). Chervinsky explained the colonists had celebrated their monarch’s birthday, and the cause for independence needed someone as a unifier.
One of the Founding Fathers, however, was aghast at the idea. John and Abigail Adams wrote in their letters to each other that it was inappropriate in a republic to celebrate one person.
“It’s a bit of a conundrum that we still struggle with to this day,” said Chervinsky. “How much are we to celebrate individuals when we know they are flawed people just like the rest of us?”
Eighty years after Washington’s death, Congress recognized his birthday as a federal holiday. Much like earlier in America’s history, Americans needed something or someone to help piece the nation together following the Civil War and the failure of Reconstruction, said Chervinsky.
“Washington was a history everyone could agree on,” said Chervinsky. “He was a Virginian who had adopted the North as home. He was somebody and a cause that all sides could use as a touchstone as a safe subject. It makes sense in that context that a holiday celebrating his birth would come about.”
While his actions as commander of the Continental Army helped create the birth of a nation, it was his actions in the office of the president that would set the tone for his successors for centuries to come.
“Our preservation of American institutions and the traditions that we hold so dear, the culture that the president is responsible for creating, the values that the president can espouse, and the authority that the president uses on a day-to-day basis, that all started with Washington,” said Chervinsky.