via Wikimedia Commons

Presidents Day is a time to ostensibly honor those who have served, or are serving, in the highest office in the land. And while some doubtless will pause to remember, most will focus instead on just another three-day holiday.

In the not too distant past the nation as a whole celebrated the birthday of George Washington, the “Father of His Country,” on Feb. 22. School children and others also marked the birthday of Abraham Lincoln on Feb. 12. These were times to recall the contributions that arguably the two greatest statesmen in U.S. history made to the country. Now the much-deserved veneration of these two great presidents generally falls by the wayside.

While it’s nice to have a three-day weekend to break up the doldrums of February, it is in many ways unfortunate that the nation no longer has occasion to reflect on the impact George Washington had on the founding of our republic.

He not only successfully led a ragtag army of colonialists toward victory over the mighty British army, he oversaw the establishment of a strong and well-financed national government. He was a man of unity, staying above the political squabbling of those who would be his successors as president. His farewell address, which he wrote to “friends and fellow citizens” at the end of his 20 years of public service before retiring to his home in Mount Vernon, Virginia, is widely regarded as the greatest treatise on republicanism ever written. In it, he warned of the political dangers Americans must avoid if they were to remain true to the values of their new country.

While the modern political process is inseparable from partisanship, Washington warned against the rise of political parties, which he feared would be used by “demagogues seeking power.” He reminded the people that “the independence and liberty” the nation had recently won were the result of “common dangers, sufferings and successes” they had experienced together in the American Revolution and the early years of the new country. Said he, “The name of American must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations.”

Nearly 70 years later, Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, led the nation through the most divisive period in its history. It was he who said, speaking of himself, “Nearly all men can stand adversity but if you want to test a man’s integrity, give him power.”

Both Lincoln and Washington recognized that government has a role in the life of the nation. As Lincoln would admonish Congress that their role was, “to elevate the condition of men — to lift artificial weights from all shoulders, to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all, to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance, in the race of life.” Both men spent their lives working to form a more perfect union where that “fair chance” could be provided for every citizen.

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Others who have served as president have, of course, made important contributions to the country at important times in history. But, arguably, none has had the impact of Washington and Lincoln.

Enjoying the weekend is a nice break from the winter blues. Taking time to thankfully talk about presidents like Washington and Lincoln is important. But acting like them is much more laudable. Each citizen should recognize neighbor helping neighbor and serving wherever and whenever possible is what fulfills the call of past presidents — to provide every individual a fair chance at their version of the American dream.