Postcard from the Past – Observing Washington’s Birthday
In observance of Washington’s birthday, we offer this history lesson taken from the Feb. 12, 1920, issue of “The Saratoga Sun.”
Many Jealous of Washington
The fame of George Washington lived down every criticism and critic directed against aim. Today, his name is reverenced beyond that of any other American, and it is hard to realize that for the great deeds he had accomplished he should have made a great many enemies, who tried by every means to blacken his character and break his popularity with the people.
The custom of celebrating Feb. 22 in honor of Washington’s birthday dates back to 1783. On that day and year, a number of gentlemen who admired him met in a tavern in New York. One had written an ode and another brought a list of toasts. The celebration at once became popular, and the historian says, “March was far gone before the Gazettes and Advertisers ceased to publish narratives of the bonfires and the barbecues, the bell ringing, the cannonading, the feasting, etc., which came in from every town in the land.”
But there was a considerable part of the community who looked upon these celebrations with hidden rage, a writer . . . observes. These consisted mostly of the admirers of France and the new republic, and they claimed that the president was an aristocrat. Was he not cold and reserved? Did he not carefully avoid the use of the word “servant” when he signed his letters?
But Washington paid no attention to the willful misconstruction of his most innocent acts. In 1796 for the first time in the history of the country, the office of president was open to competition. Twice had Washington been chosen by the unanimous vote of the Electoral College and twice inaugurated with the warmest approbation of the whole people.
But the times had now changed. In 1780 and 1792, every man was for him. In 1796, in every town and city of the land were men who denounced him as an aristocrat, as a monocrat, as an Anglomaniac. Yet much as his popularity suffered, it was still great and powerful, and thousands of men in the Republican party would gladly have seen him seated for the third time, but he refused, and on Sept. 17 made public his farewell address.
His critics stated that the reason he refused to be a third-time candidate was said to spring from a knowledge that he would not be elected, not from a want of ambition or a loss of power. The Republicans favored Adams, whom they said had the simplicity of a Republican, but Washington had the ostentation of an eastern pasha.
When, however, it was known that Washington would not serve again the merits of a number of candidates were urged and discussed, and upon his retirement to Mount Vernon the opposition to him gradually grew less violent and finally his most bitter opponents began to recognize the wisdom of Washington as a statesman, as well as they had appreciated his service as a soldier.
Another article in the same newspaper noted, “It was on Sept. 19, 1796, that Washington issued his farewell address to the American people”…but then, that’s a history lesson for another “Postcard.”