By Newt Gingrich
When you observe Presidents’ Day, whether you are spending a long weekend with friends and family or just relaxing and catching up on chores or hobbies, take some time to reflect on why this holiday is so important to our country.
What we now call Presidents’ Day was originally the national recognition of the birth of President George Washington. As a country, we have celebrated Washington’s birth since 1800 (the year after Washington died) because he played such a critical role in our country’s founding – and very survival.
As I mention in the first episode of my new podcast Newt’s World, which debuts this weekend, many biographies and histories describe Washington as not only extraordinary – but actually essential to the creation of America. Had he died during his first big military assignment at Fort Necessity (where he helped start the French and Indian War), or later fighting the French in the Pennsylvania woods, or at any of the many battles in the early part of the revolution which were military disasters for the Americans, the country would simply have remained a British colony for untold years to come.
On one hand, Washington was essential to eventually defeating the British – largely through pure determination, courage, and faith rather than specific military expertise.
After one of his early battles in the French and Indian War, Washington had four bullet holes in his jacket – bullets that missed him by inches. In that same battle, two of his horses were shot and killed out from under him, yet he emerged from the fray uninjured. Washington later wrote to his brother saying that it must have been divine providence that he survived. Then, about a decade after that war, a Native American leader independently repeated Washington’s remark, saying that he had his best marksmen fire at Washington but none were able to hit him. The Indian leader stated that Washington would one day be the leader of a great nation.
Later, when Washington (having lost nearly 27,500 men to fighting, illness, injury, or desertion) called his generals in to explain he would be taking his remaining 2,400 tired, cold soldiers, across the Delaware River in a snowstorm in the dead of winter, so they could ambush trained Hessian mercenary soldiers in Trenton, they thought he was crazy. Yet, Washington took Trenton with minimal American casualties.
These are amazing stories. But Washington was essential to the survival of America once the fighting had finished. The political turmoil that happened once the British surrendered was real, and it threatened to jeopardize the entire American experiment in self-government.
Remember, Washington had spent eight years of his life fighting the strongest military in the world. He had been away from his farm, his wife, and the life that he loved. Then, he sees the country he sought to help create was in many ways tearing itself apart. Despite this, he did not want or ask for the presidency.
When his generals, who were frustrated by politics and lack of pay, wanted to over throw Congress to bring order to the new country, he put a stop to the potential rebellion. When the Continental Congress convened, he turned in his sword, resigned, and went back to Mount Vernon. It was only through strong urging from Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, and other Founding Fathers that he agreed to accept his election as our first president – and it took even more convincing from them for him to sit a second term. His fellow founders were so adamant about Washington leading the country in those early days because they knew he was the only one who could do it.