By: Stephanie Acquadro, Master Tutor
Although February is the shortest month of the year, it contains three notable
days: Valentine’s Day on the 14th; Ground Hog Day on February 2nd and
President’s Day which celebrates what was once two notable days in the month:
Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on February 12, and George Washington’s birthday,
on February 22. In 1971, however, Congress passed a law which combined the
two men’s birthday celebrations into one day that came to be known as
President’s or Presidents’ Day. Today some believe, depending on how the
holiday’s name is punctuated, that the day celebrates all the presidents. No
matter how Americans view the holiday, since 2020 is a presidential election
year, it might be helpful to know how we came to elect two of the most famous
men to ever hold the office of President of the United States.
Washington and Lincoln were crucial in defining our nation and what the role of
the president should be. As the first president of the United States, Washington
established precedents that are still followed today, including our reliance on the
Electoral College, the wording of the presidential oath of office and with one
exception, all presidents have served no more than two terms. Lincoln was
president when the country was nearly torn apart by a Civil War. During this
period, as the country grew in physical size, the legality and expansion of
slavery, an issue inadequately dealt with in the U.S. Constitution, became too
contentious to be resolved.
Our first president, who belonged to no political party, was elected in 1788 in an
election that was a compromise of the demands of two opposing factions of the
founding fathers: one group wanted the president to be picked by popular vote,
while the other group wanted members of Congress to decide who should be
president. A little over 43,00 ballots were cast. The voting system at the time
selected the person with the most electoral votes to be president and the
individual with the second highest number of votes to be vice president.
Washington’s election had really been a forgone conclusion: his military
leadership during the Revolutionary War made him well-known and well-
respected, so much so that he not only handily won re-election in 1792, he
probably would have won a third term as well, but he refused to run again
because he did not want to have the leadership of the new nation to resemble
that of a king’s.
Unlike Washington, who was wealthy before he became president, Abraham
Lincoln was poor, born in a one-room cabin in Kentucky. Lincoln never served in
the military, but he held several offices before becoming president, including
postmaster in New Salem, Illinois and a county surveyor. In 1834 he became a
representative in the Illinois State House and later served one term in the U.S.
House of Representatives. By the 1850s, slavery had been outlawed in the most
of the northern states, but remained legal in the South. Lincoln’s position against
slavery hardened and it was on this issue that he ran for president as a
Republican against Stephen Douglas. The seven debates between these two
men are considered the most important debates in U.S. history. On November 6,
1860, Lincoln was elected the sixteenth president of the United States. A month
and a half later, South Carolina seceded from the Union, making the Civil War
inevitable. Before the war was over, Lincoln had issued the Emancipation
Proclamation which was an executive order freeing the slaves. In 1865, the 13th
Amendment was passed which forever outlawed slavery in the United States.
The process by which these two men ascended to the presidency differed
greatly: by the time Lincoln was elected, the Electoral College was made up
ostensibly to reflect the popular vote, and vice presidential candidates ran on the
same ticket as the president. Nevertheless, as we head to our next presidential
election in November, it’s important to remember that today’s current events will
become tomorrow’s history and how and who we choose the President of the
United States will define our country’s future.