I learned something about President’s Day today. I mistakenly believed that it was a day of celebration for both George Washington and Abraham Lincolns’ birthdays. When I was young both of their birthdays were on the calendar, recognized in school, and well known to students. Lincoln’s is February 12 and Washington’s is February 22.
Washington’s birthday was an unofficial holiday from the time of his death in 1799 until made official by the District of Columbia in 1879 and the entire U.S. in 1885. In 1971, as part of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act it was moved from Washington’s actual birthday to the third Monday in February. At the time efforts were made to also include Lincoln as an honoree, but the lawmakers from Virginia, Washington’s home state, resisted and it failed. Apparently the lawmakers from Kentucky, where he was born, and Illinois, where he lived when he came to prominence, didn’t have the clout that the Virginia lawmakers had.
The federal government still considers the holiday Washington’s Birthday, not President’s Day. But I’m sure many people now believe that the holiday is President’s Day and meant to honor all presidents.
This all came as somewhat of a disappointment to me, not that I have anything against Washington. When I was 10 years old and in the 5th grade, in Ms. Lauffer’s class at Rumbaugh Elementary School in Mt. Pleasant, Pennsylvania, I had the privilege of playing the part of Lincoln in a short play. I was awestruck by the man. Hard working, humble beginnings, self educated in many respects, honest, skilled, and principled. Even under the most difficult of circumstances, such as a bitter war torn nation, he did the right thing, and was senselessly murdered for it. Ultimately I read numerous books about his life.
From that point forward I wanted to be a lawyer like Lincoln. I had no close family members, or family friends, who were lawyers, so my view of a lawyer was greatly shaped by my perception of Lincoln. Even to the time I went to law school I expected that I would likely be a lawyer in the mold of Lincoln, doing just about whatever any client needed. To this day, within the business law realm, and sometimes even beyond, I try to do what I can to help people in need of legal services, even if it just means pointing them to somebody other than me I think will do a competent job of assisting them. To me there is no better way to be a lawyer than to be like Lincoln. Frankly, there is no other way.
When asked most lawyers for many years have claimed Atticus Finch of Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird as their inspiration. Now Atticus was, at least in that novel, sort of a “modern day” Lincoln. Set in the 30’s during the Depression, in segregated Alabama, he was willing to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman even though he knew he would be met with hostility by his community. Now that is very Lincolnish, and admirable, but it’s still fiction. There is no substitute for the real Lincoln. If you’ve read Harper Lee’s sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman, which came out in 2015, shortly before her death in 2016, you may not see Atticus quite the same way. But I have no misgivings about Lincoln.
Anyway, I’m still not quite clear what we are supposed to be celebrating today, but whenever we celebrate Washington’s Birthday, or President’s Day, or whatever it is, I’m going to remember Abraham Lincoln. Particularly, I’m going to remember the lofty standard he set as a lawyer, and national leader, and the gift of inspiration he gave me to be what I am today, at least the better parts of what I am.