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Monday, February 12, 2018

Hails to the Chiefs: Washington and Lincoln

FIRST AND SIXTEENTH: Presidents Washington and Lincoln both served the nation at pivotal times in its history. Their lives demonstrated strong moral values, solid judgment and a strong commitment to the union that is America.

By the time Abraham Lincoln entered the 1860 presidential race, he was known as "The Railsplitter." The term, taken from his rural frontier youth, was perhaps more of a campaign gimmick than a serious personal description.  The image is a 1911 Lincoln Day postcard. 

CLOSED FOR BUSINESS. Long before Washington's Birthday became part of a three-day weekend, it was customary for businesses to close on Feb.22.  This poster from the late 1800s celebrates the actual birthday.

Journal Opinion 2/7/2018

“As long as human hearts shall everywhere pant, or human tongues shall anywhere plead, for a true, rational, constitutional liberty, those hearts enshrine the memory and those tongues prolong the fame of George Washington.”  Robert Winthrop, July 4, 1848

Monday, February 19 is President’s Day in Vermont and George Washington’s Birthday in New Hampshire. It will be part of three-day weekend created by Congress and first observed in 1971. It will be a chance to get a good deal on everything from mattresses and automobiles to remainders of winter garments. Conditions seem to indicate a great weekend for skiing and snowmobiling, activities that will draw crowds from down country.

Winthrop’s quote was part of his speech at the dedication of the cornerstone for the Washington Monument. At Washington’s death, Harry Lee referred to Washington as “first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” Those words describe Washington’s place in American history.

There is another birthday observed this month. Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809.  In 1903, his private secretary John G. Nicolay recalled “He was beloved by his countrymen because he was the full embodiment of American Life, American genius, American aspiration. A self-made man whose experience proved that the son of the humblest farmer could one day rise to the White House, he wielded frightening power but used it judiciously and without arrogance.”

This column describes the manner in which both Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays have been observed since their deaths and how those observations have changed.  

George Washington was born on Feb.11, 1731 in Virginia. With parliamentary adoption of the Gregorian calendar, the date was changed to Feb 22, 1732. He served as commander-in-chief of the American Continental army, as president of the 1787 Constitutional Convention and as the first President of the United States, completing two terms. In his Farewell Address, Washington set forth his vision for the new nation.

As he completed his time in each of those positions, Washington relinquished power. That, in itself, is a testimony to his character. He became regarded as “father of our country.” Washington was the original “American Idol.” He died in 1799 after a career of five decades in public service.

Unlike Washington, Lincoln occupied the national scene for only seven years, from his historic Senatorial debate against Stephen Douglas in 1858 until his death in 1865. Lincoln was elected President as the  candidate from the new Republican Party in 1860 and reelected in 1864. 

His election triggered the Civil War, a struggle that severely tested his leadership. He is credited with saving the Union and freeing millions of slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation followed by the enactment of the 13th Amendment. He was assassinated in April, 1865. As with Washington, Lincoln possessed personal virtues worthy of honor. But these leaders were not infallible. Readers can look elsewhere for articles  on both men’s weaknesses and failures.   

Plans to honor Washington began soon after his death. In 1791, the new capital was named in his honor. One of the first observances was held in New London, NH in 1800. In 1806, a children’s book on Washington’s life was authored by Mason Weems. A total fabrication, it was, never the less, the origin of stories that have helped to define Washington for generations. For example, Washington did not take his ax to his father’s cherry tree.      

In the early 19th century, Washington Birthday celebrations were commonplace. It’s annual observance was second only to the Fourth of July as a patriotic holiday. In 1814, Vermont’s Jefferson county was renamed in honor of Washington, as much in opposition to the former as admiration for the latter. The centennial of his birth in 1832 was marked by nationwide festivals.

In 1844, the Whig Party of Vermont called for a meeting in every town for this “auspicious day.” The Vermont Phoenix editor wrote “the name and character of Washington are the inheritances of our whole country.” In 1848, construction of the Washington Monument began. In 1851, the suggestion was that Feb. 22 was a day set aside as a day for reading Washington’s Farewell Address and seriously reflecting on his duty to the country and to the world.”

Two years later, the northern portion of the Oregon Territory was named Washington Territory, a title it kept when it was admitted to statehood in 1889.

During the Civil War, New Hampshire and Vermont troops observed Washington’s birthday as a general holiday. One soldier described “the roar of cannon fired in salutes filled the whole land.” The reading of Washington’s Farewell Address became an annual event in the United States Senate.

In 1870, federal offices in Washington began closing for the holiday. In New Hampshire and Vermont, Washington Balls were held in 1871. But in 1873, a Rutland editor decried “the very little recognition” and suggested that “the few flags which were displayed served, however, to take the curse off of business.” In 1874, the highest peak on the Northeast was renamed Mount Washington.  (May have been called that as early as 1784 in honor of General Washington.) In the centennial year of 1876 “observances were more elaborate than usual.”

The next year, the editor of the St. Johnsbury newspaper wrote “People love a holiday, and so long as Washington’s birthday furnishes them with the pretext for stopping work, putting on their best clothes and seeing processions, so long will Washington’s name be a motto for the festival.”  Neighborhood newspaper columns often mentioned visitors who came to spend Washington’s Birthday with local families.  

In 1885, the federal observance of the holiday was expanded to the whole nation. Locally, Washington’s Birthday continued to be a major social and political holiday, especially when it occurred as part of a weekend. During the 1880s, the birthday was celebrated with musical presentation, lyceums and suppers, often as a fund-raising event.  It was common for George and Martha Washington to make an appearance in appropriate costumes.

In 1889, a Birtheve dance was held at the school house in East Corinth and another at the Parker House in Woodsville. Newbury’s Tenney Library hosted a special program. It was generally the custom for local schools to hold programs honoring Washington. That year, Newbury students were allowed time off. One youngster, writing of a cold afternoon trip to Bradford during this free time, expressed the wish that Washington had been born in June. 

Because of his connection to their histories, the Daughters of the American Revolution, Masonic groups and the Improved Order of Red Men paid special attention to Washington’s birthday. Church services were devoted to his memory, with special emphasis on the anniversaries of events such as his inauguration. While businesses, banks and post offices closed for the holiday,  businesses did not specifically mention the anniversary in advertisements. 

In the period before World War I,  Washington’s Birthday celebrations continued to be very common. In 1909, participants at a North Thetford social “partook of the cherry tree.” At Newbury’s Chadwick Hall a colonial costume ball was held.  Social events often featured Washington Pie,  a filled cake similar to Boston cream pie.  

Despite the early observances of Lincoln’s birthday, celebrations of the martyred President’s birth never achieved the high emphasis of Washington’s. The closeness of the two birthdays along with the rise of Valentine’s celebrates made Lincoln’s somewhat less important socially. Besides, Lincoln’s role in the Civil War was still fresh in the minds of many southerners.

In 1867, New Jersey became the first state to declare it a holiday  but efforts in the early 1870s and again in 1881 to make it a federal holiday were unsuccessful. 

 Major efforts to honor the Great Emancipator were made by African-American groups.  Lincoln’s birthday and the Feb. 14th birthday of Frederick Douglas were the origins of February as Black History Month.  

 At the same time, observances were being held by local and state Republican party organizations and veterans groups throughout Vermont and New Hampshire. As with Washington, local Grange organizations used Lincoln’s life as the topic for programs. In 1895, the Vermont Young Men’s Republican Club gathered 1,000 participants in Burlington for “rousing celebration” to mark Lincoln’s Birthday. When the birthdate fell on a Sunday, it was common for sermons to be dedicated to the life of Lincoln.

In the first two decades of the 20th century, many businesses began to close on Feb. 12, especially in the 11 states where it was a legal holiday. Increasingly, newspaper notices began to mention the two birthdays together.   

Locally, it was common for one group to take Washington’s Birthday as an occasion for an annual event and, rather than compete for the public’s attention, another would take Lincoln’s. In 1912, the Vermont legislature passed a resolution calling for all schools to hold Lincoln Day exercises.    

During World War I, the Red Cross used the two birthdays in a special drive to gain school-age members.  In 1918, the American Alliance called for a national loyalty campaign in February.

A review of The United Opinion and other Vermont newspapers reveals that celebrations of both birthdays continued after 1920.  Illustrated syndicated columns on the lives of the two presidents appeared frequently. 

 In 1923, along with reports of terrible roads and illness, the newspaper reported social events along with the comment “Washington’s greatness is everywhere acknowledged.” A dance in Fairlee was “well attended.” Reports of the newly dedicated Lincoln Memorial in Washington were prominent.

The next year, Bradford’s Doe Brothers sponsored a Lincoln Essay Contest, the newspaper had major articles on the lives of the two presidents and dances and church services were held everywhere including in Orford and Thetford Center. This was the pattern that continued through the years especially when there was a major commemorative event.  

The 1932 bicentennial of Washington’s birth was just one such occasion. The President and Governor encouraged Vermonters to use the occasion for community service. In Bradford, a community program filled the Congregational Church. If there was a pattern to the celebrations in the 1930s, it was that Lincoln’s day was observed by meetings and Washington’s by dances. 

During the early years of  World War II, the nation was reminded that the two presidents faced “elusive victory, low morale and a series of misfortunes” but met them with “brave resistance.” In 1944,  Christians and Jews observed Brotherhood Week during February and the local paper carried the following: “We are blessed to have a national government which give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution, no assistance.”

As early as 1920, Washington’s Birthdays became associated with winter carnivals in the two states. By the early 1940s, February 22nd had become a major ski holiday, especially when it adjacent to a weekend or during school vacations. In 1948, The United Opinion reported that all area hostels were overwhelmed with skiers. As conditions at many major ski areas were icy, local conditions were some of the best in New England. Corinth’s Northeast Slopes had it best year in its 12-year history.  

The late Dorothy Cole recalled when large ski groups came to stay at the Cole Lodge on the Lower Plain in Bradford in the 1950s around the February holiday. Guests would sleep and eat at the Lodge and ski at Northeast Slopes.  

In 1968, the federal government enacted the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. Beginning in 1971, Washington’s Birthday was moved to the third Monday in February. The Act did not combine Lincoln’s birthday with Washington’s. Despite public perceptions to the contrary, the Act did not create a holiday entitled President’s Day. However, a number of states use that term or some combination of the titles Presidents, President’s, Washington’s and Lincoln’s. A few states still honor Lincoln’s birthday as a separate holiday.  In New Hampshire, it is officially Washington’s Birthday, despite the use of the term President’s Day on some official state calendars and in general usage. 

The three-day weekend continues to be a major boost to retail sales and the tourist industry and are a major contributor to businesses’ bottom lines.  Several retired teachers told me they felt that school emphasis on the birthdays lessened after 1971.

There are constant daily reminders of Lincoln and Washington. Their images are on stamps and currency. Their names are on everything from streets, highways and city names to mountains, counties and one state. Their image is on numerous statues and engraved on Mt. Rushmore.  While Washington has more place names, Lincoln is the topic of more books.

Major films such as Spielberg’s Lincoln, books such as Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, the sesquicentennial of the Civil War and the recent local arrival of the statue of Lincoln at Saint-Gauden’s National Historic Site in Cornish renew public awareness of Lincoln. In the weeks ahead, both names will be attached to repeated television and newspaper ads.

Washington and Lincoln are relevant to us today because their lives demonstrated strong moral values, solid judgment and a strong commitment to the union that is our nation. Their contributions serve as examples of how a single individual can make an enormous difference in the futures of all Americans.

Local Lincoln historian David Puritt recently wrote “Abraham Lincoln’s birthday should be celebrated annually because he holds an absolutely unique and desperately needed positive place in our history.”  One could easily substitute Washington’s name in that sentiment. Hail to both these great men.