What Does Presidents' Day Mean to Us Now?

Presidents' Day was first established on February 22, 1879, as a national holiday to honor America’s first president, George Washington, on his birthday. Since then, the exact date has been moved a few days back to create more three-day weekends, and along with it, the meaning has changed in order to honor all past and present presidents who have led our country. 

During Washington’s farewell address, he left a message for all future presidents to “Observe good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all.” This motto has been one of the key points for presidents as they took their seats in the Oval Office and promised the nation four years of fair leadership.

However, many U.S. presidents have not exactly been following through with Washington’s wishes. Nearly every American president has either signed an executive order, supported a bill, or have made decisions that negatively impacted many Americans and people of neighboring countries and abroad. Our most recent president, Donald Trump, has become the rallying point for people to gather around in support of his racism, sexism, classicism, and religious intolerance--almost every ideal that America initially declared independence from.

The meaning of this year’s Presidents' Day has especially become ambivalent, as it is following the January attack on the Capitol--which happened mere days before Joe Biden’s inauguration. Many supporters of President Trump used the day as an opportunity to push their racist agendas even further, congratulating each other’s efforts in their “successful” insurrection via Twitter. Meanwhile, others began to recognize the dangers of the legacy that Trump has left in our country and questioned what it means to celebrate the day amidst the current political climate. 

As a nation built upon immigrants and their cultures, diversity has been a key component of our growth and progress. With our country seeming to experience a surge in racial (and other) intolerance, we need to ask ourselves if we have all, indeed, been “cultivating peace and harmony with all.” 

From Washington’s farewell address, “With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles. You have in a common cause fought and triumphed together; the independence and liberty you possess are the work of joint counsels, and joint efforts of common dangers, sufferings, and successes.” We should all remember that we are one under the Constitution, under the same shared identity: Americans. If we all strive to follow Washington’s original wishes to set aside our differences and come to celebrate our diversity, maybe our next Presidents' Day might hold the meaning it was always supposed to have.