Celebrating the Birth of Our Nation’s First President 

Categories: Grad News, Cadet News

By Brian Wetzler, WPAOG staff 

“…He hopes, therefore, that every man’s mind and arms, will be ready for action, and when called to it, show our enemies, and the whole world, that Freemen, contending on their own land, are superior to any mercenaries on Earth.”    

With those words from his General Orders on August 20, 1776, General George Washington hoped to brace the fledgling Continental Army for its imminent clash with the world’s most powerful fighting force. The epic struggle that followed, and Washington’s role in it, is likely well understood and appreciated by West Point readers.  

The immeasurable contributions that Washington made to creating, protecting, and nurturing our new republic have, for centuries, rightfully commanded the ongoing awe and respect of the American people, and that of freedom-loving citizens around the world.  His strength, virtue, and steadfast commitment to the cause of liberty helped set a standard for virtuous governance rarely seen in global history.  

Perhaps, too, many readers share a sense for Washington’s special connection to West Point—his “key to the continent.” Washington’s likeness stands proudly in the center of the Plain, and in a larger sense, Washington also stands at the very center of our American story—one indispensable man; the Father of our Country. This weekend, we honor him on the occasion of his 292nd birthday.  

The celebration of Washington’s birthday stretches back to at least February 1778, when a group of drummers and fifers encamped with the Continental Army at Valley Forge gathered outside Washington’s headquarters for a birthday tribute. In February 1781, the French army commander, Comte de Rochambeau, wrote a letter to Washington informing him that he intended to host “a great ball” to mark his birthday.   

Washington responded, “The flattering distinction paid to the anniversary of my birthday is an honor for which I dare not attempt to express my gratitude. I confide in your Excellency’s sensibility to interpret my feelings for this, and for the obliging manner in which you are pleased to announce it.”  

Records from Washington’s brief “retirement” from public life suggest that he was hardly one to seek out birthday festivities. In fact, Washington passed the majority of his birthdays working quietly at Mount Vernon. The American public, however, had different ideas.      

By the time Washington was inaugurated in 1789, Philadelphia (the seat of national government from 1790-1800) was hosting large-scale celebrations of his birthday. Accompanied by artillery salutes and ringing church bells, the prominent citizenry of Philadelphia sponsored an elaborate birthday ball each year, with the President and Lady Washington often in attendance.   

Across the young country, annual celebrations were quickly becoming the norm. In 1796, an English traveler, Isaac Weld, noted, “not one town of importance was there in the whole Union where some meeting did not take place in honor of this day.”    

On February 22, 1832, on the occasion of Washington’s 100th birthday, U.S. Congress officially adjourned to mark and celebrate the day. In 1846, the Liberty Bell suffered its final, debilitating crack while ringing to honor Washington’s Birthday. It has not rung since.  

In 1862, the federal government observed Washington’s 130th birthday during a joint session of Congress in the House chamber. Congress was joined by presidential cabinet members, Supreme Court justices, and senior military officials, as they listened to the Secretary of State, Henry Seward, read aloud the entirety of Washington’s Farewell Address. Shortly thereafter, the Senate adopted the reading as an annual tradition on February 22. The practice continues to this day.   

It wasn’t until January 1879, that the U.S. Congress officially added George Washington’s Birthday to the list of four federal holidays that already existed under U.S. law. Originally celebrated on Washington’s actual birthday (February 22), the holiday’s observance was officially moved in 1968 to fall on the third Monday in February. This occurred as part of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which contrary to popular belief, did not change the official name of the holiday to Presidents’ Day [see 5 U.S. Code 1603(a)]. It always has been, and remains, Washington’s Birthday.   

As members of the West Point community, we share a responsibility to history to make sure we understand the true nature of this national day of celebration. In its position of prominence and leadership in the fabric of American culture, West Point can help rekindle the meaning of this special day, and encourage all Americans to embrace, anew, how Washington’s timeless legacy continues to bless a proud and free nation.   

For interesting Washington’s Birthday celebrations visit: Washingtonbirthday.com; Mountvernon.org; and www.wbcalaredo.org.  

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