The third Monday of February is recognized as Presidents’ Day in the United States. Established in 1885, the day was originally intended to celebrate the birthday of the first president of our country, George Washington. Today we use it to commemorate all 45 Presidents of the United States. However, no American president has ever enjoyed unanimous support from our citizens. So, the holiday is celebrated, but not universally beloved by all people.
George Washington warned his countrymen of “the baneful effects of the spirit of party” in his Farewell Address as President of the United States. That advice fell on deaf ears, and as much as Washington was held in high esteem, it was neglected. It is worth noting that political parties in the United States stem partly from a political feud between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. The Federalists, led by Secretary of Treasury Hamilton, wanted a strong central government, while the Anti-Federalists, led by Secretary of State Jefferson, advocated for states’ rights instead of centralized power. The growth of political parties was an American response to political conflict. That explains a lot about where we are today, as Hank Williams Jr. might remind us, “it’s a family tradition.”
Many presidents have had their race, ethnicity and even sexual orientation debated. And religion is almost universally questioned when the faith issue is brought up. Our former leaders, or at least their very being, are no longer even accepted at face value. Lyndon Johnson made an astute observation by pointing out that the “presidency has made every man who occupied it, no matter how small, bigger than he was; and no matter how big, not big enough for its demands.” Nobody is born to be President of the United States and the on-the-job-training is unlike any other endeavor the office holder is likely to face.
The 45 individuals who served as Presidents of the United States have shaped our country. Their stories are really only a part of the American story as each individual reflects on the times in which they lived. The National Portrait Gallery is the only public collection to feature portraits of all of the U.S. presidents on display. The White House collection is not always accessible to the public and not all of the presidents have portraits on continual display.
The presidency has its own song, Hail to the Chief, traditionally played by the U.S. Marine Band. It is played to announce the arrival of the President, who is America’s Commander in Chief. It was first played to honor an American president as early as 1815, when a Boston celebration marking the end of the War of 1812 fell on Washington’s birthday. However, the tradition was really established in 1829 when the song was played for President Andrew Jackson. It was only haphazardly used. First Lady Julia Polk ordered it played for President James K. Polk and has been used pretty much since his time in office.
Honoring those who occupy or occupied the White House does not mean you agree with the office holder on every issue. It is a day we, as Americans, set aside annually to reflect on ourselves and the great accomplishments of our nation. We remember the Presidents of our country. Is it an antiquated holiday? Perhaps. However, despite our admitted shortcomings, we should reflect often on our heritage as the greatest nation in the world and those who helped lead us to that esteemed position. So, on this President’s Day, with refrains of Hail to the Chief in the air, let us hope that the best is yet to come for our nation.
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JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited.