18 February 2008

It's really just one President's Day

This editorial from the New Hampshire Union Leader seems most appropriate for today:

Washington's Birthday Editorial: Celebrating America's father

TODAY is generally known as Presidents Day, but its official name is George Washington's Birthday. And for good reason.

Without George Washington, there might never have been a United States of America. Washington shaped his world more profoundly than any other man of his time. Not bad for a hot-tempered adventurer with little formal schooling.

Washington was 6-foot-3 and so strong a cousin said he could throw a stone clear across the Rappahannock River (not a coin across the Potomac, as legend later had it). He was a professional surveyor by age 17. By age 21, he was a major in the Virginia militia, trusted enough that the governor sent him to order the French out of the Ohio River Valley.

On his second trip to assert England's claim on the territory, he accidentally started the French and Indian War. Really. He wrote a friend after the skirmish that ended in his surrender, "I heard the bullets whistle, and, believe me, there is something charming in the sound."

In a later battle, Washington, though only a volunteer aide, took command as Gen. Braddock's army was being routed, and rode before the men in a courageous attempt to rally them. He had two horses shot out from under him and four bullets shot through his coat. He liked it so much, it became a trademark behavior. During the Revolutionary War, when most commanders watched the battle from safely behind their forces, Washington routinely rode the line, shouting orders, encouraging his men, and defying death and the enemy.

Washington's personal bravery was matched by his creativity as a commander. Unable to beat the British head-on, he outfoxed them. Had any other general been in charge of the Continental Army, it almost surely would have failed. Washington figured out how to beat the British by fighting a new style of war.

Having won that war, Washington in 1783 ceremoniously resigned his command. He could have taken over the country, something many expected him to do. Instead, he baffled the princes of Europe by relinquishing his power and returning to his farm.

Four years later, he was called from retirement to preside over the Constitutional Convention, where he helped shape the Constitution. His efforts to encourage ratification were probably the difference in some states, especially Virginia, which ratified the Constitution by a single vote.

Again, Washington retired. But not for long. Without campaigning for the job, he was elected President by a unanimous vote of the Electoral College.

As President, Washington again baffled his detractors by refusing to assert authoritarian control. His administration was marked with great successes and some blunders. But he achieved his wish of making the presidency a short-term office held in trust on behalf of the people.

"His integrity was most pure, his justice the most inflexible I have ever known, no motive of interest or consanguinity, friendship, or hatred, being able to bias his decision," Thomas Jefferson wrote.

That is the standard Washington set. It has not always been followed, of course. But Americans to this day strive to put someone in office who can live up to Washington's ideals.

To call today Presidents Day is to do an injustice to our greatest President and the man without whom we would not have a republic of our own. Yes, we have had some great Presidents since, but none as great as George Washington.