Today is the official observation this year of “[George] Washington’s Birthday” (February 22, 1732). However, now it is known more generally as “Presidents’ Day.” Let’s have a brief look back at each of the first five U.S. presidents – who get mentions in here…
The first was, of course, George Washington – elected without significant opposition in 1788-89 and again in 1792:
He was in office until March 4, 1797, by which time he had become so synonymous with leading the country (officially in war from 1775-83, unofficially in his “first retirement” when he was visited at home and pestered by letters for his opinions on the country’s situation from 1783-89, and then officially again in peace from 1789-97) that many could not by 1797 imagine the country without him leading it. That is why we still celebrate his birthday and he remains such a “big deal”: he may have been president for only eight years, but essentially “led” the country for twenty-two years. There would be no U.S. today were it not for him.
In the 1790s, Americans had also not yet come to “rally” around inanimate object symbols of nationhood like the Declaration of Independence (1776), the Constitution (1787), or even the “Stars and Stripes” flag; such “adulation” of them as we might recognize today began really only after the War of 1812.
Americans rallied around HIM: The living George Washington was to that generation, and to the rest of the world that knew about the country, the “symbol” of the new United States of America:
He was succeeded by his Vice President. The second president, John Adams, was elected in the first truly contested U.S. presidential election – that of November 1796 between him and Washington’s former Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson:
That son Adams refers to will eventually be the sixth president, John Quincy Adams. As he is not mentioned here by name he is not really part of this post. Interestingly, that wife would also be the first foreign born First Lady.
President Adams and his wife Abigail were NOT happy about the marriage; they did not approve of their 30 year old son marrying a woman who had been born and raised in England and had never even visited the United States. In response John Quincy basically told them… well, tough, I love her and I am marrying her. Having had several I suspect similarly “spirited” pre-marriage conversations with my own parents, I will always have a soft spot for John Quincy in that regard. Parents, eh? LOL!
In November 1800, however, Adams was defeated in the second truly contested election. Jefferson, Adams’s main opponent again, got his “revenge” in winning their “re-match.” Adams thus became the first “one term” president, and many of Adams’s supporters were – to say the least – NOT happy that he had lost:
And some of Adams’s backers thought and behaved a lot like, uh, come to think of it, some do nowadays when their desired president is defeated. But ultimately they accepted the loss. What became the first peaceful transfer of power between a defeated U.S. president and his victorious challenger took place on March 4, 1801.
That third president, Jefferson, also served two terms like Washington. Aside from in pockets of the country – especially in New England – he was massively popular by the end of his first term. He won re-election easily in 1804.
As his second term rolled on and it became clear he would respect Washington’s “two term” voluntary precedent (thus began the two-term presidential tradition that remained until FDR won a third term in 1940, and since 1951 has been constitutionally mandated), the question began to be asked: Who would succeed Jefferson?:
That successor – the fourth president – was indeed that James Madison. He had been Jefferson’s Secretary of State and a close personal friend since the early 1780s. He won relatively easily in 1808.
That James Monroe above would eventually succeed Madison (who also won two terms and retired) and win two terms as the fifth president, from 1817-25.
And so it has gone every four years since then.
Oh, and I almost forgot:
Interesting further “fun fact”: Monroe – who was from Virginia like Washington, Jefferson and Madison – was married to a woman born in New York whose father had been a British soldier.
See what you can learn reading, uh, romantic historical “fiction.” 😉
Have a good “Washington’s Birthday” (“Presidents’ Day”) in the U.S., or simply have a good Monday wherever you are. 🙂