Why we celebrate Presidents Day

By Don Rajael, CCNN Writer

Lincoln and boy
An 1864 photo of Abraham Lincoln with his youngest son Tad.

Strike a match and light up some red-white-and-blue birthday cake fireworks, because Presidents Day was on February 14th! On this annual holiday, we honor the birth of two legendary American presidents: Abraham Lincoln, who was born February 12, 1809, and George Washington, who was born on February 22, 1732.

Originally, though, the holiday was all about good ol’ George, when George Washington’s Birthday was implemented by an Act of Congress in 1879 and celebrated on his actual birthday. It wasn’t until 1971’s Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which aimed to create more 3-day weekends for the nation’s workers, that the combo holiday was celebrated.

Before George Washington was elected as the 1st US President, he was the military commander who led the American Revolution forces to victory in their war for independence from Great Britain.

Then, he became known as one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, alongside John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, because he helped create the Constitution (the supreme law of the US).

After winning the presidency in 1788, Washington chose to serve two terms (each of which was 4 years long), even though he was popular enough to rule the country for decades if he wanted. This tradition of term limits continues to this day.

Nearly 100 years later, Abraham Lincoln was elected as the 16th US President in 1860. Because of Lincoln’s tough anti-slavery position, Southern states broke away from the US to form the pro-slavery Confederacy government. On April 12, 1861, the American Civil War broke out between the South’s Confederates and the North’s Union forces. Lincoln made ending slavery a war goal for the North by issuing his famous Emancipation Proclamation order.

After a brutal back-and-forth war that left between 600,000 and 750,000 soldiers dead, the Union won when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865 to Union General Ulysses S. Grant (who later became the 18th US President). Just 5 days after Lee’s surrender, Lincoln became the first president to be assassinated on April 14, 1865 when pro-Confederate John Wilkes Booth shot him at Ford’s Theatre during the play Our American Cousin.