Presidents’ Day is actually Washington’s birthday, recognized by an Act of Congress for government offices in Washington, D.C., in 1879, and for all federal offices in 1885.
In 1971, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act to create more three-day weekends moved the observance of Washington’s birthday to the third Monday in February. As Abraham Lincoln was also born in February, so many states include him in the observance, and still other states include all the presidents.
George Washington was born Feb. 22, 1732. He was:
- unanimously chosen as the Army’s Commander-in-Chief
- unanimously chosen as President of the Constitutional Convention
- unanimously chosen as the first U.S. President
George Washington was an Anglican, and, after the Revolution, an Episcopalian. His great-great-grandfather, Rev. Lawrence Washington, was an Anglican minister in Essex, England, who lost his position when the Puritans won England’s Civil War in 1651.
George Washington’s great-grandfather, John Washington, sailed as second officer on a ship to the Colony of Virginia to purchase tobacco. In 1657, when a storm partially sank their vessel in the Potomac River, John swam ashore. While the ship was being repaired, John stayed at the home of a planter Colonel Nathaniel Pope, and fell in love with his daughter, Anne. John never returned to England.
John and Anne married, and her father gave them 700 acres in Westmoreland County. John Washington became a successful planter, a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, and a militia leader. A local Anglican church was renamed “Washington” in honor of John Washington.
When John Washington died, he left to the church a tablet of the Ten Commandments. His will stated: “In the Name of God, Amen. I, John Washington, of Washington Parish, in the County of Westmoreland, in Virginia, gentleman, being of good and perfect memory, thanks be unto Almighty God for it, and calling to remembrance the uncertain state of this transitory life, that all flesh must yield unto death, do make, constitute, and ordain this my last will and testament. … … First, being heartily sorry, from the bottom of my heart, for my sins past, most humbly desiring forgiveness of the same from the Almighty God, my Savior and Redeemer, in whom and by the merits of Jesus Christ, I trust and believe assuredly to be saved, and to have full remission and forgiveness of all my sins, and that my soul with my body at the general resurrection shall rise again with joy.”
The oldest of John Washington’s sons was Lawrence, the grandfather of George Washington. Lawrence married Mildred Warner, an ancestral aunt of Queen Elizabeth II. When Lawrence died in 1698, Mildred married George Gale and moved back to England with her children. When Mildred died, a relative in America petitioned to get custody of her children and they were returned to Virginia in 1704. One of those children was Augustine Washington, the father of George Washington.
Augustine Washington served as a vestryman in the Anglican Truro Parish. He and his wife Jane Butler had two sons live to adulthood, Lawrence and Augustine Jr. When Jane died, Augustine married Mary Ball and they had six children, with George being the oldest.
Augustine died in 1743 when George was only 11 years old. George’s older half-brother Lawrence fought in the British navy under Admiral Edward Vernon, who had captured Porto Bello, Panama, from Spain in 1739. When Lawrence returned to Virginia in 1742, he named his farm after his Admiral – Mount Vernon.
Lawrence married Anne Fairfax, whose father had been Collector of Customs in Barbados, and Chief Justice and Governor of the Bahamas, as well as the cousin of Thomas Farifax, who was the largest land owner in America with five million acres. Lawrence arranged for George, at age 15, to begin a career in the British navy as a cabin boy, but his mother, Mary Ball Washington, refused and George complied with her wishes.
In 1748, the 16-year-old George Washington was employed by Thomas Farifax to survey the western area of his vast estate. In 1751, Lawrence Washington, who had contracted tuberculosis, went to Barbados in hopes that the change of climate would help him recover. He brought along his 17-year-old half-brother George. In Barbados, George contracted smallpox, but recovered. This providentially inoculated George so that he was not affected during the Revolutionary War, where more soldiers died of smallpox than in battle.
Lawrence died in 1752 and his Mount Vernon estate eventually was inherited by George, making him one of the largest landowners in Virginia. George became vestryman in Truro Parish, and was godfather in baptism to several nephews and a niece. From 1753-1758, George served in the French and Indian War. He was a colonel under General Edward Braddock, Commander of the British forces in America. George miraculously survived the Battle of Monongehela in 1755. Braddock was killed, leaving George in command.
On July 18, 1755, Washington wrote from Fort Cumberland to his brother, John A. Washington: “By the All-Powerful Dispensations of Providence, I have been protected beyond all human probability or expectation; for I had four bullets through my coat, and two horses shot under me, yet escaped unhurt, although death was leveling my companions on every side of me!”
Colonel Washington wrote to Fort Loudoun, April 17, 1758: “The last Assembly … provided for a chaplain to our regiment. On this subject I had often without any success applied to Governor Dinwiddie. I now flatter myself, that your honor will be pleased to appoint a sober, serious man for this duty. Common decency, Sir, in a camp calls for the services of a divine.”
In 1759, George fell in love and married the 26-year-old widow and mother with two children – Martha Dandridge Custis.
George Washington was commissioned as the General of the Continental Army in 1775. Many of his orders and correspondence revealed his faith.
When the Declaration of Independence was written, a copy was rushed out to Washington, who was fortifying New York City. He had it read to his troops, then ordered chaplains placed in each regiment, stating July 9, 1776: “The General hopes and trusts, that every officer and man, will endeavour so to live, and act, as becomes a Christian Soldier, defending the dearest Rights and Liberties of his country.”
General Washington wrote at Valley Forge, May 2, 1778: “To the distinguished character of Patriot, it should be our highest Glory to laud the more distinguished Character of Christian.”
To the Delaware Indian Chiefs who brought three youths to be trained in American schools, General Washington stated, May 12, 1779: “You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ.”
On July 2, 1776, from his Head Quarters in New York, General Washington issued his general orders: “The time is now near at hand which must probably determine whether Americans are to be freemen or slaves; whether they are to have any property they can call their own; whether their houses and farms are to be pillaged and destroyed, and themselves consigned to a state of wretchedness from which no human efforts will deliver them. The fate of unborn millions will now depend, under God, on the courage and conduct of this army. Our cruel and unrelenting enemy leaves us no choice but a brave resistance, or the most abject submission. We have, therefore to resolve to conquer or die. Our own country’s honor calls upon us for a vigorous and manly exertion, and if we now shamefully fail, we shall become infamous to the whole world. Let us rely upon the goodness of the cause, and the aid of the Supreme Being in whose hands victory is, to animate and encourage us to great and noble actions.”
On Oct. 2, 1775, General George Washington issued the order: “Any … soldier who shall hereafter be detected playing at toss-up, pitch, and hustle, or any other games of chance … shall without delay be confined and punished. … The General does not mean by the above to discourage sports of exercise or recreation, he only means to discountenance and punish gaming.”
On Feb. 26, 1776, General Washington issued the orders: “All … soldiers are positively forbid playing at cards and other games of chance. At this time of public distress men may find enough to do in the service of their God and their country, without abandoning themselves to vice and immorality.”
On July 4, 1775, General Washington ordered: “The General … requires … observance of those articles of war … which forbid profane cursing, swearing and drunkenness; And … requires … punctual attendance of Divine Services.”
As recorded in “The Writings of George Washington” (March 10, 1778, 11:83-84, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1934), George Washington ordered: “At a General Court Marshall … Lieutt. Enslin of Colo. Malcom’s Regiment tried for attempting to commit sodomy, with John Monhort a soldier … and do sentence him to be dismiss’d the service with Infamy. His Excellency the Commander-in-Chief approves the sentence and with Abhorrence and Detestation of such Infamous Crimes orders Liett. Enslin to be drummed out of Camp tomorrow morning by all the Drummers and Fifers in the Army never to return.”
Washington acknowledged God throughout the Revolution, as he wrote on May 15, 1776: “The Continental Congress having ordered Friday the 17th instant to be observed as a day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer, humbly to supplicate the mercy of Almighty God, that it would please Him to pardon all our manifold sins and transgressions, and to prosper the arms of the United Colonies, and finally establish the peace and freedom of America upon a solid and lasting foundation; the General commands all officers and soldiers to pay strict obedience to the orders of the Continental Congress; that, by their unfeigned and pious observance of their religious duties, they may incline the Lord and Giver of victory to prosper our arms.”
George Washington presided over the Constitutional Convention in 1787, and was sworn in as the first president in 1789.
President Washington thanked God for the Constitution, Oct. 3, 1789: “Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the Providence of Almighty God. … I do recommend … rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks, for … the favorable interpositions of His Providence … we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war … for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government.”
In his farewell address, 1796, Washington stated: “Disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an Individual … (who) turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty. … The spirit of encroachment tends to consolidate the powers of all the departments in one, and thus to create, whatever the form of government, a real despotism. … Let there be no change by usurpation; for though this, in one instance, may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed.”
Earlier, in 1783, the American-born painter Benjamin West was in England painting the portrait of King George III.When the King asked what General Washington planned to do now that he had won the war. West replied: “They say he will return to his farm.”
King George exclaimed: “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”
Poet Robert Frost once wrote: “I often say of George Washington that he was one of the few men in the whole history of the worlds who was not carried away by power.”
George Washington added in his farewell address, 1796: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great Pillars of human happiness.”
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