Honoring two true leaders

Today is a national holiday.

Sure, most stores, business and industries will be open. But government agencies, courthouses, post offices and schools will be closed.

They are celebrating Presidents’ Day.

It is widely observed, but vaguely understood.

Prior to 1968, George’s Washington’s Birthday was celebrated on the day of his birth, which is Feb. 22.

A federal law passed in 1968, effective in 1971, and adopted by individual states, declared the third Monday in February to be Presidents’ Day to celebrate both the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln, who was born on Feb. 12, and George Washington.

Though the focus of Presidents’ Day naturally centers on Lincoln and Washington, President Richard Nixon in 1971 proclaimed that the one single federal public holiday – Presidents’ Day – would honor all past presidents of the United States of America.

Still, Americans should take time today to reflect on two truly great leaders.

Of all the presidents in the history of the United States, Abraham Lincoln is probably the one that Americans remember the best and with deepest affection.

His childhood in the frontier of Indiana set the course for his character and motivation later in life. He brought a new honesty and integrity to the White House. He would always be remembered as “Honest Abe.”

Most of all, he is associated with the final abolition of slavery. Lincoln became a virtual symbol of the American dream whereby an ordinary person from humble beginnings could reach the pinnacle of society as president of the country.

Lincoln was born on Feb. 12, 1809, in Kentucky, and he moved to Illinois in 1831.

In 1834, he was elected to the Illinois State Legislature. He served until 1841.

He practiced law all across the state for the next few years, traveling far on horseback to different counties.

In 1847, he was elected into Congress, but his opinions did not ensure him a long stay there. He was vehemently against slavery and took stands on other controversial issues.

He was not elected for a second term, so he returned to his law practice.

A few years later, slavery became a stronger issue, and more people were willing to abolish it.

Lincoln joined the Republicans, a new political party that was opposed to slavery.

The party nominated him for the U.S. Senate in 1858, but he lost to Stephen Douglas.

In 1860, Lincoln was nominated as the Republicans’ candidate for the 16th president of the United States. He won by a small margin.

Even before his election, the country had began the process of “dividing against itself.” Seven Southern states had already seceded from the Union.

As the Civil War raged, Lincoln was elected to a second term in 1864.

He led the Union in war against the South, refusing to allow the country to divide.

The Civil War finally ended on April 9, 1865. He was shot and killed five days later.

George Washington, born Feb. 22, 1732, in Virginia, was a natural leader – instrumental in creating a united nation out of a conglomeration of struggling colonies and territories.

The first president of the United States is affectionately honored as “the father of his country.”

Shortly after his 22nd birthday, Washington served in the army of King George III of England.

In the war against the French and Indians, Washington commanded large troops of soldiers and showed courage that inspired all his soldiers.

At this time, King George III of England dominated the 13 colonies along the east coast and much of the surrounding territories.

Colonists began to want their freedom, and live with a set of rules based on democracy, not under the rule of a far-away king.

The Boston Tea Party of 1773, a colonial rebellion against taxes, helped to spark the American Revolution.

Washington led and encouraged his inexperienced armies against the British forces for eight years until the colonies won their independence.

Laws for the new country were written into the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

The laws called for a president, and here again George Washington was considered the natural choice. He agreed to serve his country as the first president.

Washington was a reluctant leader. As he inspired his soldiers through two wars, he saw himself serving his country, not leading it.

When he accepted two terms as president, he saw himself serving God and his country in peacetime.

He turned down a third term as president. He only wished to retire to his beautiful family home, Mount Vernon.

Americans were so grateful for a strong leader who had proven that democracy was a feasible way to govern a growing country that they celebrated Washington’s birthday while he was still alive.

These men were leaders, heroes and standards of excellence.