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The history of Presidents’ Day is a bit convoluted. The enduring lessons from some of the leaders recognized on the third Monday of February, however, are crystal clear even generations later.
This holiday began in the 1880s to honor George Washington’s Feb. 22 birthday. In 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, leading to certain holidays falling on Mondays rather than specific dates and giving Americans a few three-day weekends. While the federal holiday still technically stands as “Washington’s Birthday,” it has in recent decades come to be widely recognized as Presidents’ Day. This celebrates the office of the presidency and those who have joined Washington in serving in it — particularly another former president with a February birthday, Abraham Lincoln.
As America once again celebrates Washington and Lincoln long after their deaths, their words remain instructive at a difficult time for our country.
Each year in observance of Washington’s birthday, a member of the U.S. Senate reads the first president’s farewell address. It’s an annual reminder of Washington’s timeless warnings about regionalism, partisanship and foreign interference in our domestic affairs. Those continue to be forces that, if left unaddressed, threaten the American democratic experiment.
In that address, written with help from Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, Washington also demonstrated a level of humility and introspection that is often lacking from many of today’s political leaders.
“Though, in reviewing the incidents of my administration, I am unconscious of intentional error, I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors,” Washington said. “Whatever they may be, I fervently beseech the Almighty to avert or mitigate the evils to which they may tend. I shall also carry with me the hope that my country will never cease to view them with indulgence; and that, after forty five years of my life dedicated to its service with an upright zeal, the faults of incompetent abilities will be consigned to oblivion, as myself must soon be to the mansions of rest.”
That stands in stark contrast to current political discourse, when few seem able to muster three important words: “I was wrong.” At the very top of that list is former President Donald Trump, who after fueling the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, declined to accept any responsibility and insisted his comments before the violence were “totally appropriate.” Not exactly a Washingtonian level of self-reflection.
Our first president’s departure from office is so revered not just because of the words he offered at his farewell, but also because of the context in which those words and that departure came. There was no 22nd Amendment in 1796. A 64-year-old Washington could have served a third term, but he worried that he could die in office and cast the presidency from its inception as a position held for life.
Presidents are temporary servants of the people. The way Washington left office helped ensure that American reality.
Trump, in contrast, pushed the limits of America’s peaceful transfer of power. While Washington refused to define the presidency as a lifetime position, Trump refused to admit defeat. He refused to accept election results, recounts and audits, and rulings from the courts. His false narrative of a stolen election culminated with violence in the halls of Congress on Jan. 6.
In short, his exit from the presidency was a dangerous departure from Washington’s example.
As a result of his actions, Trump was impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives and tried in the U.S. Senate. That trial concluded Saturday with his acquittal. However, a bipartisan majority of senators supported his conviction in what was the most bipartisan presidential impeachment in American history.
Seven Republican senators, including Maine Sen. Susan Collins, recognized Trump’s actions for what they were and voted to convict. Their votes reflect 1854 remarks delivered by the man who would go on to become the first Republican president.
“Stand with anybody that stands right. Stand with him while he is right and part with him when he goes wrong,” Lincoln said. This quote was actually invoked by Trump’s defense team during the trial, but it fits well with the decision of these senators to support the conviction of a president from their own party.
These Republicans refused to stand with Trump in this moment of profound wrongness. They put truth before party. And not unlike the words of Washington and Lincoln, history will remember that.