Though Presidents’ Day honors all those who have served as President of the United States, it primarily focuses on two of America’s greatest presidents, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, who were both born in February, the month in which the holiday has been traditionally celebrated. Yet Washington is the only president officially named in the bill establishing Presidents’ Day as a national holiday, and that is how it should be: come what may, he as good as invented the job. That he didn’t want to be president, or before that, Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army either, merely redounded to his acclaim. What Washington wanted was to be at home, making architectural and agricultural improvements to his beloved Mount Vernon, trying, vainly, to turn a profit. But when honor demanded he leave home, he left, and when honor allowed, he returned. Thus he gave up, eagerly, the command of a victorious army in 1783, to go back to Mount Vernon; and in 1797, gave up, just as willingly, his two-term presidency, to return home, again, as a private citizen. Mindful that he was walking on untrodden ground, and all too aware that every aspect of his conduct might become precedent, his insistence on relinquishing power would prove, in no small part, why Americans do not have a Coronation Day, but Presidents’ Day instead. And yet, on leaving his presidency, it was a king about whom Washington thought.
In a respite at Mount Vernon in 1784, following his extended term as Commander of the Army, Washington wrote in a personal letter, that he was now finally “under the shadow of my own Vine, and my own Fig tree,” recalling the Old Testament account of King Solomon’s peaceful reign: “And Judah and Israel dwelt safely, every man under his vine, and under his fig-tree, from Dan even to Beer-sheba, all the days of Solomon.” (This imagery too, was the same used when, as President, he assured Rhode Island’s Jews of religious liberty, declaring “every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig-tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”) What Washington left unsaid about retirement from the busy schemes of public life, he says outright here, in this remarkable letter, written just two months after coming home, having hurried to rescue his long-neglected Mount Vernon. He was exuberant! Here, then, is his joyful “history of a day.”
"It is not then in the glare of public, but in the shade of private life, that we are to look for the man. Private life is always real life." - Parson Mason Locke Weems, The Life of Washington, 1808
George Washington is remembered in the legends of American History for his stony face; his rigid bearing; his tightly compressed lips covering the famous false teeth. Reserved, punctilious, so very, very august, George Washington was the last person, a historian quipped, you would have suspected of having ever been a young man. Yet grim-faced and duty-bound though he be, Washington was made of marble only in the public eye. Writing here, having just handed the presidency over to John Adams, Washington was a different man. Having returned to Mount Vernon, and at last under the shadow of his own vine and fig-tree, he was, in fact, buoyant, wry – and surprisingly, funny.
To his old friend still in government, Secretary of War James McHenry, Washington writes:
I am indebted to you for several unacknowledged letters; but ne’er mind that; go on as if you had them. You are at the source of information, and can find many things to relate; while I have nothing to say, that could either inform or amuse a Secretary at War in Philadelphia.
Instead, he describes his long wished-for domestic ease, which begins, he notes self-mockingly, at daybreak:
I begin my diurnal course with the sun;…if my hirelings are not in their places at that time I send them messages expressive of my sorrow for their indisposition; then having put these wheels in motion, I examine the state of these things farther; and the more they are probed, the deeper I find the wounds are, which my buildings have sustained by an absence, and neglect of eight years. By the time I have accomplished these matters, breakfast (a little after seven o clock, about the time I presume you are taking leave of Mrs. McHenry) is ready. This over, I mount my horse and ride round my farm, which employs me until it is time to dress for dinner, at which I rarely miss seeing strange faces; come, as they say, out of respect to me. Pray, would not the word curiosity answer as well? And how different this, from having a few social friends at a cheerful board? The usual time of sitting at Table–a walk–and Tea–brings me within the dawn of Candlelight; previous to which, if not prevented by company, I resolve, that as soon as the glimmering taper supplies the place of the great luminary, I will retire to my writing Table and acknowledge the letters I have received; but when the lights are brought, I feel tired, and disinclined to engage in this work, conceiving that the next night will do as well; the next comes, and with it the same causes for postponement, & effect; and so on.”
Having been, as President, away from his home for eight years, the Mount Vernon to which Washington returned, was in profound disarray. Everything needed repair. Buildings, fields, even the mansion itself, were all falling apart. Indeed, on inspecting a cellar in the mansion, Washington was horrified to discover the great beam supporting the large dining hall to have so decayed, that even a modest number of guests, were they to gather on the floor above, were likely to end up, sunk, in the cellar. Such a misfortune might well have proven less a catastrophe than the calamity of having to care for and feed those “strange faces” who, “out of respect,” required Washington to put them up – at, of course, his cost – for a day or two.
The supervising of work at Mount Vernon – which, daily, would seem to be five hours or so in the saddle; the constant crowd of visitors, to oblige and entertain; the lateness of the hour to which, finally, Washington might attend to his own business, all contributed, Washington closes, to why he never gets to his mail. Or why, he jokes, he would likely die before he was able to finally pick up another book:
This will account for your letters remaining so long unacknowledged; and having given you the history of a day, it will serve for a year; and I am persuaded you will not require a second edition of it: but it may strike you, that in this detail no mention is made of any portion of time allotted for reading; the remark would be just, for I have not looked into a book since I came here, nor shall I be able to do it until I have discharged my workmen; probably not before the nights grow longer; when, possibly, I may be looking in doomsday book.
Washington jested that his “history of a day” would suffice as an account of the whole coming year. His assumption was indeed an underestimation: he would, in the end, maintain the same routine at Mount Vernon for more than two more years, until, on December 12, 1799, having spent five hours inspecting his estate during a winter storm, he took to bed with a cold. Eighteenth-century medicine, with its tortuous purges and blistering and bleeding (half his blood volume, gone!) killed him quickly – and so the most important founder of the United States died on December 14th, age 67, his life to be commemorated this, and every, Presidents’ Day.
GEORGE WASHINGTON. 1732 – 1799. First President of the United States.
Autograph Letter Signed, 3 pages, quarto, Mount Vernon, May 29, 1797, with autograph address panel and free franked. To Secretary of War James McHenry. Published in Fitzpatrick: 35:455-456