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Presidents Day established to celebrate all U.S. leaders

Chicago Daily News negatives collection
By Laura Rahill

In 1885, the Presidents Day holiday was established in honor of the birthday of America’s first president, George Washington. The observance is still officially called Washington’s Birthday by the federal government and only became popularly known as Presidents Day in 1971 after it fell under the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which was an attempt to create more three-day weekends for the nation’s workers.

The holiday is now a day to celebrate all U.S. presidents on the third Monday in February. In addition to George Washington, who was born on Feb. 22, William Henry Harrison, Abraham Lincoln, and Ronald Regan all celebrated February birthdays.

Washington was and still is considered one of the most important figures in American history. For most of the 1800s his birthday was unofficially observed. It was not until the late 1870s that it became a federal holiday. In 1879, U.S. Sen. Steven Wallace Dorsey, of Arkansas, was the first to propose the measure and it was then signed into law in 1879 by President Rutherford B. Hayes. In 1885 it was expanded from the District of Columbia to the whole country.

Washington’s Birthday was the first holiday to honor the life of a person. It joined only four other federal bank holidays: Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, Independence Day and Thanksgiving.

Presidents Day calls for a patriotic salute to America’s past presidents. On this day, it is not uncommon for historical groups to stage celebrations, re-enactments and other events. Schools will close for this observance with history lessons on previous presidents, particularly Washington and Lincoln, and give special attention in the days leading up to the celebration.

This coming Monday, the country’s largest Presidents Day parade will take place in Old Town Alexandria, Va., where Washington once walked. Closer to home, Madame Tussauds museum in Times Square will host a presidents gallery with wax figures of all 44 presidents, complete with interactive features.

Some of the more uncommon writings about Washington’s life peg him as not only a founding father but somewhat of a superhero. At 6 feet 2 inches and 200 pounds, he was one of our biggest presidents with the physical strength to match. It is said that he was able to crack walnut shells between his thumb and forefinger.

His fabled strength was matched only by his extreme bravery. Many documents report that Washington was at all the front lines of the many battles he took part in, returning ragged, and often without a horse but somehow never gravely harmed. Not only was he a fearless general, he was also widely acknowledged as the best horseman in the 13 colonies.

Off the battlefield, his mental ability did not let him down either. Although he only had eight years of formal schooling, his math abilities got him hired as a paid surveyor at 16 and he was highly regarded by his peers as an intelligent and wise president.

Today, the White House has more staff employees than the entire U.S. government did in Washington’s time. Interestingly, it was Washington who established the two-term presidency and he served both terms after being elected unanimously both times, receiving every electoral vote.

After all the many vicious battles he fought and won, it was a throat infection that claimed Washington’s life in 1799.

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