Our state is named after our nation’s first president, which is a major reason why most folks have a day off from their work or school duties Monday, Presidents Day. The holiday splits the difference in honoring the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12) and George Washington (Feb. 22).
While we won’t argue with Lincoln’s greatness, we will note with some parochial pride that the federal recognition officially remains “Washington’s Birthday” and that the commonly stated “Presidents Day” is actually a generic reference.
Our leisure on this particular day stems from the holiday’s conformity to the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which in 1968 combined most holidays into a standard three-day package. So, naturally, this brings us a three-day opportunity for a late-winter getaway or store sale. Amid all the extracurriculars, it’s easy to lose sight of history and civics.
The website HistoryLink.org, a valuable resource for information about our state’s past, informs us that the state’s name was not a given. In fact, if not for a Kentucky congressman’s action – HistoryLink calls it “meddling” – our state would have had a different name altogether.
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It seems back in 1853, when what was formally part of the Oregon Territory was separating from our southern neighbor, most of the residents favored a different namesake: “Columbia,” in line with the name on the region’s iconic river and the Italian explorer who informed Europeans about the land mass that came to be know as the Americas.
The Kentuckian, Rep. Richard Stanton, unilaterally decided that “Columbia” would be confused with “District of Columbia,” so he persuaded Congress and President Millard Fillmore to make the name “Washington Territory.” Thus, the thinking went, “Washington state” would never be confused with “Washington, D.C.”
Well, that didn’t really pan out.
Nonetheless, we have learned to roll with it, and the holiday is useful in revisiting the achievements of two undeniably great presidents. George Washington led the military campaign that won our nation’s freedom from British rule, then guided the young republic through its difficult early years. Abraham Lincoln, as our 16th president, held the country together through the horrors of the bloody Civil War and took landmark steps that enabled basic rights for all American citizens.
These are legacies that are useful to ponder for those blessed with a respite from school or workplace labors today. These two presidents helped preserve the freedoms that allow us to enjoy our free time on this Presidents Day holiday.