Feb. 18 is designated as our national Presidents Day this year. How much history do you know or remember?
Prior to 1968, Feb. 22 was observed as a federal holiday to honor the birthday of President George Washington and Feb. 12 was observed to honor President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. A 1968 Uniform Holidays Law passed by Congress was designed to ensure federal employees had a three-day weekend on several holidays. This moved Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, Veterans Day and Columbus Day to Mondays. Otherwise, when a holiday falls on a Saturday, it is celebrated the prior day; when a holiday falls on a Sunday, it is celebrated the following day. The law took effect in 1971.
The official Washington’s birthday holiday is now the third Monday in February. The date that is celebrated now never falls on an actual anniversary of his birthday. Several states then called it Presidents Day.
In 1999, bills were introduced in both the U.S. House and Senate to specify that the legal public holiday once referred to, as Washington’s birthday should be officially called by that name once again. Both bills died in committees. Today that official holiday is called President’s Day by most people.
George Washington is generally considered to be our first president. However, there were actually seven presidents before him. Prior to Washington, presidents were limited to one-year terms.
The first president was John Hanson who was unanimously elected by Congress to serve a one-year term after the full ratification of the Articles of Confederation on March 1, 1781. The Articles of Confederation was the document that actually formed our country. He served in that office from Nov. 5, 1781 until Nov. 3, 1782.
President Hanson had been elected to the Provincial Legislature of Maryland. He became a member of Congress in 1777 where he had distinguished himself as a brilliant administrator. Two of his sons had been killed serving in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. Many of his nephews, grandsons and other descendants played key roles in the formation of the new United States. More information on President John Hanson and his accomplishments can be found here: http://www.marshallhall.org/hanson.html.
President Hanson took office just as the Revolutionary War was ending. The troops were demanding to be paid, but the government had no funds. The soldiers threatened to overthrow the new government and install General Washington as king on the throne. The members of Congress ran for their lives and left President Hanson to solve the problem. He ultimately calmed the troops to avoid an insurrection and preserve the government. He ordered all foreign troops off American soil, as well as the removal of all foreign flags. He was also the one to designate the fourth Thursday of every November to be Thanksgiving Day.
The other six one-year presidents following Hanson were Elias Boudinot (1783), Thomas Mifflin (1784), Richard Henry Lee (1785), Nathan Gorman (1786), Arthur St. Clair (1787), and Cyrus Griffin (1788). Gen. George Washington would become the first president of the United States under the Constitution that now defines our form of government when he took his April 30, 1789 oath on Wall Street.
While doing research for this article I also ran across another bit of presidential history that I had learned in grade school. There have been several presidents who were elected without winning the popular vote.
Many of us remember the contentious 2000 presidential election when George W. Bush won the presidency with only 47.87 percent of the popular vote and 271 electoral votes over Albert A. Gore Jr. with 48.38 percent of the popular vote and 266 electoral votes. Other presidents who were elected with the lower of the popular vote totals were Rutherford B. Hayes over Samuel J. Tilden in 1876 with 48 percent vs. 51 percent and Benjamin Harrison over Grover Cleveland in 1888 with 47.6 percent vs. 48.6 percent.
The U.S. House of Representatives chose two presidents when the voters did not determine the winner. Congress selected Thomas Jefferson over Aaron Burr in 1800 when they were tied in electoral votes. Each state cast one vote in Congress. It took 36 ballots to decide on Jefferson.
None of the presidential candidates had a majority of votes in the 1824 election. The U.S. House of Representatives selected John Adams over Andrew Jackson, even though Jackson had both more popular and electoral votes.
We sometimes think that today’s politics are messy. However, we only need to look back at history to see that this has been a condition of our form of representative democracy all along. Hope you all have a nice three-day holiday on presidents’ day weekend.
Chuck Drury is an Anoka resident, retired engineer and former technical director of Federal Cartridge Company.