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Honoring George Washington, the Good and the Bad, on President’s Day

On February 20, America will recognize George Washington’s Birthday. No matter how many calendar makers, newspapers and politicians refer to it, there never has been a federal law creating a holiday called “Presidents Day.” And the lack of a federal Presidents Day is a good thing. While Washington deserves special reverence, as does the office he holds, having a day to honor all presidents would dishonor both Washington and the presidency itself.

Let’s start with Washington. In the words of biographer James Thomas Flexner, he was the “indispensable man” of the American founding. He kept the Continental army together even as it lost major battles, won the Revolutionary War with help from the French, presided over the Constitutional Convention, and served two terms (by unanimous vote of the Electoral College) as the nation’s first president. He further strengthened democracy by stepping down after those two terms when he could have remained in power indefinitely.

He was, of course, human. He was sometimes a poor military tactician and often cold and aloof in person. He was also an enslaver who owned more than 100 other human beings. Although he freed them on his death, participating in such a system remains a moral stain.

While a few other presidents — Abraham Lincoln, in particular — arguably saved the country, Washington was the person who created it. So, if Americans want to celebrate their country, they should also celebrate Washington.

But this is different from celebrating all presidents. Many presidents with important, meritorious achievements made enormous errors in judgment and morals. Woodrow Wilson, for example, ushered in prosperity through free trade, helped open the vote to all women and led the nation to military victory in the first World War while simultaneously catering to the worst of American racial prejudice at every turn.

Thomas Jefferson doubled America’s territory through the Louisiana Purchase and caused an economic depression through a disastrous trade embargo.

Likewise, some seemingly unaccomplished presidents did good things. Warren Harding, for example, presided over a corrupt administration and accomplished little during his two years in office, but showed real courage in advocating for civil rights for Black Americans in the Jim Crow South. Andrew Johnson, a dissolute drunk and terrible political leader who attempted to undermine reconstruction after the Civil War, brought Alaska into the United States in one of the greatest land deals in history.

And a few presidents were simply losers. James Buchanan did nothing to stop a slide into civil war. John Tyler refused to cooperate with anyone while in office and, after his presidency, worked hard to stoke the fires of secession by winning elected office in the confederate government. And, of course, when it comes to recent presidents — Donald Trump, in particular — opinions will remain exceptionally divided for some time to come.

Given the mixed achievements of the men who have held America’s top office, nobody should honor all of them. The office Washington originated, however, deserves esteem as a symbol of the country. While vociferous opponents of any president’s policies have an important place in a democracy, this should not extend to attacks on the office itself.

Washington was largely successful in his promise to “raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair” and then stepping away from power when he could have held it for longer. His actions established a presidency worthy of reverence. While we shouldn’t have to honor every president, it is still possible to honor Washington’s achievements, recognize his human failings and celebrate the presidency.

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Rediscovering America: A Quiz for Presidents Day

Presidents Day, which originated in the 1880s, will be observed on February 21 this year. The quiz below, from the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University, provides an opportunity for you to test your knowledge of America’s presidents and the American presidency. It was written by Sarah M. Burns,  a member of the Ashbrook Center faculty and an associate professor of political science at Rochester Institute of Technology.


1. Presidents Day originally was established to honor which president?

A. George Washington

B. Abraham Lincoln

C. Thomas Jefferson

D. All of the above


2. Only two presidents were among the signers of the Constitution.  Which two were they?

A. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson

B. George Washington and John Adams

C. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison

D. James Madison and George Washington


3. Which of the following is not specified in the Constitution’s list of crimes that warrant a president’s removal from office on impeachment?

A. Treason

B. Abuse of power

C. Bribery

D. High crimes and misdemeanors


4. Of all the presidents, only one had a formal education in political science. Who was that?

A. Jimmy Carter

B.  Harry Truman

C.  John F. Kennedy

D. Woodrow Wilson


5. Which president named the president’s residence and workplace the White House?

A. John Adams

B. Andrew Johnson

C. Theodore Roosevelt

D. Zachary Taylor


6. Four U.S. presidents were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Who were they?

A. Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Jimmy Carter, and Barack Obama

B. Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Woodrow Wilson. and Barack Obama

C. Theodore Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, and Barack Obama

D. John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama


7. Which president served as a Supreme Court justice after his presidential term in office?

A. Grover Cleveland

B. Calvin Coolidge

C. Benjamin Harrison

D. William Taft


8. Which document is most responsible for laying out the process by which we nominate presidential candidates today?

A. Article II of the U.S. Constitution

B. The 22nd Amendment of the U.S. Constitution

C. The McGovern-Fraser Commission Report of 1971

D. The Brownlow Committee Report of 1937


9. Two U.S. presidents began life as indentured servants.  Who were they?

A. Zachary Taylor and James Polk

B. Millard Filmore and Andrew Johnson

C. Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant

D. John Tyler and James Buchanan


10. Which famous historical document is read on the U.S. Senate floor every Presidents Day?

A.  Declaration of Independence

B. George Washington’s farewell address

C. Gettysburg Address

D. John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address

Answers: 1-A, 2-D, 3-B, 4-D, 5-C, 6-A, 7-D, 8-C, 9-B, 10-B

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HOLY COW! HISTORY: For President’s Day, Some Presidential Parting Words

We remember what many presidents said in office. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” “Ask not what your country can do for you…” “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

Not so well known is what they said on their way out. Literally. Their final sentences as they made the transition from the chief executive to the dearly departed.

This President’s Day, it’s worth revisiting the last words of several presidents. Some parting phrases were inspiring, some were sad, and some were, well, just plain ordinary.

George Washington enjoyed only two years of post-presidential retirement at his beloved Mount Vernon estate. He became sick in the closing days of 1799 and, with wife Martha seated at the foot of his bed as preparations for his funeral were discussed, he whispered, “’Tis well,” and was gone.

President #2, John Adams, had ironic last words. He and the man who followed him, Thomas Jefferson, were bitter rivals. But they patched things up after their White House days and even became friends. At age 90, Adams passed away at 6:20 p.m. on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. His final comment: “Thomas Jefferson survives.” He had no way of knowing Jefferson had died in Virginia that very morning.

President #5 also had a predecessor on his mind when he passed away. James Monroe said, “I regret that I should leave this world without again beholding him.” He meant president #4 and his best friend, James Madison.

William McKinley was shot by an assassin. He knew his time had come in 1901 when he said, “Goodbye, all, goodbye. It’s God’s way. His will be done.”

James Garfield was also shot. He struggled with the injury and subsequent infection for 79 agonizing days before finally asking his doctor, “Swaim, can’t you stop the pain?”

Benjamin Harrison’s parting words were about his late wife. “I know I am going where Lucy is.”

A touching tribute to true love came in the last words of James Knox Polk, spoken to his wife. “I love you, Sarah. For all eternity, I love you.”

For sheer mundaneness, it’s hard to beat the utterly mundane Millard Fillmore, commenting on some soup he had just been fed. “The nourishment is palatable.” (Not exactly the line you’d like chiseled on your marble monument.)

“Silent Cal” Coolidge called, “Good morning, Robert” to a carpenter working at his house just before having a heart attack.

In fact, a surprising number of presidential last words came from commanders-in-chief who didn’t know their demise was imminent. The man who gave the world the Gettysburg Address’s moving prose had a ho-hum last line. As everyone knows, Abraham Lincoln was shot while watching a play at Ford’s Theatre in Washington. When he took his wife’s hand, she playfully asked what the young lady sitting in their box would think of his breach of Victorian etiquette. “She won’t think a thing of it,” he spoke for the last time.

Likewise, John F. Kennedy answered a question with his last words. As his motorcade passed through cheering crowds, the wife of Texas Gov. John Connally said, “You certainly can’t say that the people of Dallas haven’t given you a nice welcome, Mr. President.” JFK replied with a smile, “You certainly can’t.”

The man who held the office longer than any other, Franklin Roosevelt, was sitting for a portrait when he suddenly complained, “I have a terrific headache,” and slumped over from a cerebral hemorrhage.

Those who made it to old age sometimes endured ill health at the end. Dwight Eisenhower, who had suffered a massive heart attack while president, was ready. “I want to go. God take me,” he said.

Lyndon Johnson, another heart attack survivor, felt pains one afternoon at his Texas ranch. “Send Mike immediately,” he cried. But by the time his Secret Service agent arrived, LBJ was gone.

The two Andrews from Tennessee, Jackson and Johnson, both left urging their children to be good.

We don’t know the final words of seven presidents. They either were not recorded, or the family chose not to share them.

But those that were written down reveal how at that most personal of moments, the men who led our nation were just like the rest of us. Totally human.

Theodore Roosevelt had the most succinct last line of all. Teddy was turning in for the night on January 5, 1919 when he told his servant, “Please put out the light.” He died in his sleep from a blood clot a few hours later.

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