For many Americans, Presidents’ Day does not elicit serious reflection about our nation’s turbulent history, but it’s a time for recognition nonetheless. Dating back to the early 19th century, Presidents’ Day began as a way for citizens to commemorate George Washington’s birthday on February 22. Eventually, the day evolved into a federal holiday observed on the third Monday of February, which also honors other U.S. Presidents—including Abraham Lincoln who was born in the same month.
These Presidents are acclaimed not only for their superior leadership, but also for their renown in strategically bringing together people of polarized ideologies. Here are the most important Presidential figures who challenged our country to rise above distrust and hostility, in order to forge a more peaceful union.
President George Washington
George Washington was an aristocratic planter born in Virginia, in 1732. He was elected Commander in Chief of the Continental Army at the start of the Revolutionary War, in 1775, and then elected the first President of the United States after the war ended. He risked his life of privilege to become a traitor of the British Crown, resisting taxation without representation and other unfair acts imposed on the British Colonies. Although many colonists sided with the Crown, Washington demanded discipline from his soldiers and respect for all civilians—loyalists and patriots alike—who were on opposite sides of the deep political divide during the war. Once the war concluded, the commander quelled a military coup, called the Newburgh Conspiracy. He met with his subordinates directly and subsequently lobbied a newly formed Congress successfully to distribute pensions his soldiers were due, in 1783.
Washington regularly sought advice from people with the best minds of the day. In 1787, at the Constitutional Convention, he conferred with delegates and Alexander Hamilton about supporting a more stable and centralized form of government, to avoid anarchy in the newly formed and fragile union. The former commander was elected President in 1789 after the Constitution was ratified. He focused on continuing to unite a war-torn nation, employing his astute diplomatic skills to bring influencers together, often with opposing political views, including Thomas Jefferson. He also dined on food and beer with convicts locked up in debtor’s prison. Perhaps one of Washington’s most enduring and unifying acts was the establishment of Thanksgiving Day on November 26, in 1789.
President Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln was born into a humble beginning in rural Kentucky, in 1809. He was primarily self-educated before becoming a lawyer, then a representative in the U.S. Congress. Lincoln was adamantly against the expansion of slavery into other U.S. states, which prompted him to enter the Presidential race. He won the election in 1860, becoming the 16th President. When Southern States then seceded from the Union to form the Confederacy, the Northern States refused to recognize the succession. The Confederacy’s firing on Fort Sumner ignited the American Civil War in 1861, which lasted four brutal years and claimed a minimum of 620,000 of lives. During this time, Lincoln was forced to contend with radical factions on both sides, each of whom threatened to tear the Union apart forever.
As a newly elected President, Lincoln was thus tasked with bringing together a young republic radically divided by geography and ideology. He ultimately succeeded by using a combination of political strategy and public relations. Lincoln was able to leverage the wealth and resources of the North to cripple Southern trade with blockades and keep foreign interference at bay. He freed slaves in states in active rebellion, with the Emancipation Proclamation, and delivered the powerful Gettysburg Address, in 1863—promoting freedom and equal rights for all. This powerful speech further strengthened the resolve of the North. Finally, the passage of Thirteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution outlawed slavery for good. Ultimately, Lincoln was reelected and, as the war was ending, assassinated in 1865. Despite this tragic end to a distinguished life, President Lincoln’s enduring legacy of uniting a nation under constitutional crisis lives on.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt
Franklin D. Roosevelt was born to a wealthy New York family, in 1882. He became the 32nd president of the United States, in 1933, during the Great Depression. His optimism, strong will, and extraordinary leadership during World War II, allowed him to rebuild an impoverished nation.
Almost immediately after he was elected President, Roosevelt implemented numerous federal relief measures, helping millions of poor citizens during the worst depression in U.S. history. The “New Deal” included banking reform and agricultural, mortgage, and job assistance programs. The most popular acts were Civilian Conservation Corps, which hired thousands of unemployed workers, and The Public Works Administration, which constructed massive public works projects across the nation.
When World War II arrived, President Roosevelt tried his best to keep America out of the war. However, when Japan attacked a U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, in 1941, he delivered the famous and inspiring “Day of Infamy” speech. Immediately, Congress declared war on Japan and Americans volunteered enmasse to join allied forces in eventually defeating Nazi Germany, Japan, and Italy in 1945. His unification and leadership skills were so popular, he was reelected for an unprecedented third term as President, in 1940.
President Lyndon B. Johnson
Lyndon B. Johnson was born in Texas in 1908. He was a school teacher, senator, and Vice President before becoming the 36th President of the United States after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, in 1963.
Johnson’s vision for a “Great Society” included the expansion of public broadcasting, the arts, and healthcare, including Medicare and Medicaid programs. His “War on Poverty” included releasing federal funds to aid the poor in housing, jobs, and public education—creating food stamps, Head Start and Work Study programs.
America was severely fractured, riotous and racially divided in the early 1960s. Although highly criticized for escalating U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, Johnson was able to bring the country together by signing into law the Civil Rights Act. He succeeded where his predecessor, President Kennedy, had started but failed. As a former representative and senator, he understood how to expertly navigate Congress and was a master statesman. He managed tactically to gain consensus from key Southern senators who were blocking the civil rights legislation with a filibuster for over a month. Johnson rallied enough powerful legislators to his cause through compromise and capitalizing on his familiarity with the political motivations and delay tactics of key players, having deployed similar strategies while serving as senate majority leader previously. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is arguably one of the most important acts ever passed—making it illegal for public facilities to discriminate based on color, race, national origin or religion. It also guaranteed equal employment rights for women.