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President's Day honors men who molded character

February is an interesting word for the shortest month in the year. If you are being paid  by the month you will only have to work 28 days to qualify unless it’s a leap year. Of course you knew that. You also knew that the Romans celebrated some sort of purification on the thirteenth day of the second month. So much for the background. Never forget the 14th!

You also know that we celebrate the birth dates of two famous presidents. In the old days we had a holiday on the 12th for Abraham Lincoln and on the 22nd for George Washington. In the eyes of some it was unfortunate that those holidays often fell in the middle of the week so the opportunity for a three-day weekend didn’t exist until the idea was launched to ‘celebrate’ both birthdays at once, thereby giving birth to President’s Day Sales and other promotions. So much for recognizing a couple of outstanding Americans.

While it has been said more than once that comparisons are odious, there is something therapeutic about doing that, especially when it serves to prove your point. This time I think it is noteworthy to note that while George Bush has been criticized no end for the war in Iraq, Abraham Lincoln waged a war even less popular and that killed more of our own people, all the while there being no enemy! How about that?

In fact, when Lincoln came into office there was so much hostility in the land that he had to work hard at staying alive. Getting into Washington for his inauguration required that he sneak into town via a Pullman car pulled through Baltimore behind a team of horses. Fortunately for us, all the railroads that enabled him to get into town became a legacy almost as great as winning the Civil War.

It was Lincoln who early on “grasped the significance of the railroad as a new factor in transportation,” according to his later personal secretary and biographer, John Nicolay. His relationship with railroads continued throughout his life. The railroads were how he traveled from Illinois to Washington. The initial trip took 13 days and covered seven states. Most of his remarks were delivered from the observation platform on the rear of the train. It was at one stop where he responded to an 11-year-old girl’s suggestion that he grow a beard. He wore a beard for his remaining days. He gave her a kiss which endeared him to the track-side crowd.

It has long been contended that the famous Gettysburg speech was written on the train. Those who knew him best said that while he may have contemplated what he was going to say, they feel certain the speech was composed before he left Washington.

Considering his high regard for the importance of the railroad it seems logical that his body would be carried on what would be a Funeral Train. In 1865 the mourning for the slain President had never been matched. That 300,000 people would file past the bier in Philadelphia was a first in this nation. Carl Sandburg has written ”Such a final pilgrimage had never before moved with such sober outpouring on so vast a national landscape.” We owe it to ourselves to appreciate those who lead and he was, indeed, a leader.

George Washington, whose birthday is the 22nd, was our good fortune to be a leader first and a president second. It was his stature and character that kept the Revolution intact and moving. It was George Washington who guided the Constitution into a recognizable form. He probably could never have imagined the many assaults and amendments, nor the changes two centuries would bring any more than any other leader in our history.

Time not only takes a toll but changes the social landscape as surely as any great river. That he had the foresight to help craft a statement of principles that not only would serve the moment but the future is a tribute worthy of more than a long week end.

History is more than an accumulation of dates. It is far more than a latent message in a treasured artifact. The people who supported the Revolution, and it was not everyone, were not looking for a handout, a guaranteed minimum wage, more aid for dependent children or to be bailed out. All they wanted was the freedom to use their own wits and to be successful on their own without being subservient to a King whose only interest was collecting taxes

That we have enlarged the role of government in our lives was surely not contemplated by those who paid such a dear price for their liberty. Their expectations were minimal. No one was owed or promised anything but the opportunity to succeed.

So if you are going to spend a moment thinking about why we have Presidents Day, don’t stop with a story about a boy with an axe and a cherry tree (Washington) or the Great Emancipator (Lincoln) but reflect on what these men did in molding the character that has made the sons and daughters of the Revolution so great in the annals of world history.

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Paul Rechnitzer Paul Rechnitzer Transplanted 30 years ago, Paul is a retiree from the oil business who knows no other place he would rather live and breathe local history.

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