On the third Monday in February, the nation honors its first President, George Washington, born on February 22, 1732. A revered leader who was the only political independent to hold the office, the actions of President Washington established many fundamental precedents that remain intact today, while his words offered cautions about threats to America and its democratic underpinnings.
“During his lifetime, Washington paid little attention to his own birthday. His diaries show he often celebrated the day by responding to letters or attending to matters at Mount Vernon,” said Douglas Bradburn, Ph.D., President & CEO of George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
“Fast forward to 2023, Presidents Day is a national holiday offering Americans and others around the world an opportunity to reflect on George Washington’s deep and lasting impact on democracy and our nation,” Bradburn said. “Most Americans know Washington was our victorious commander in chief during the Revolutionary War, then served as the nation’s first president. But Washington contributed so much more to our country, establishing important precedents, norms, and values that now are tightly woven into the fabric of America.”
Note to Editors: Douglas Bradburn and other Mount Vernon scholars are available for interviews regarding Presidents Day. Contact Director of Public Affairs Julie Almacy firstname.lastname@example.org. Photographs for use by the news media are available here, with attribution to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.
Ten key facts everyone should know about the importance of the nation’s first president:
George Washington is the only U.S. President to be unanimously elected president, and he did it twice. The first U.S. presidential election was held from December 1788 to January 1789, and Washington was elected with 69 of the 69 first-round votes cast in the U.S. Electoral College. Washington was unanimously re-elected in the 1792 election, carrying all first-round electoral votes. Read more.
Washington’s second inaugural address is the shortest ever delivered. Delivered March 4, 1793, the address clocked in at less than two minutes and was only 135 words in length. In contrast, the most recent address delivered by President Biden was 2,371 words in length, and the longest was William Harrison's 8445-word address in 1841. Read more.
President Washington never lived in Washington, D.C., and he is the only president to have never occupied the White House. In July 1790, Congress passed the Residence Act which called for the permanent capital of the United States to be located on the Potomac River -- the future Washington, D.C. George Washington played an active role in determining the location of the ten-mile square federal district, the White House, and the Capitol. Read more.
George Washington established the tradition of cabinet of advisors. While the Constitution calls for the creation of executive departments, it only explains that the heads of executive departments were unelected officials answering to the president. Washington defined how these roles would function. Washington’s cabinet included just four original members: Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of War Henry Knox, and Attorney General Edmund Randolph. The current presidential cabinet includes sixteen members. Read more.
President Washington was an outspoken advocate for religious freedom. George Washington’s letter to the Newport Touro Synagogue Congregation has tremendous historical significance in terms of reinforcing the fundamental ideal of religious liberty in America. On August 18, 1790, synagogue congregants welcomed Washington to their place of worship, and his remarks established a precedent for protecting religious liberty and pluralism in the U.S. that continues to this day. Read more.
President Washington set precedents for the social life of the president. Concerned that the presidents of the Confederation Congress had been overwhelmed by visitors, he set aside the late afternoon for meetings with the public and evenings for dinner parties with invited guests. On Tuesday afternoons Washington received male visitors from three until four o'clock in the afternoon. Martha Washington hosted levees on Friday evenings that included both women and men, with less formal affairs featuring interactions with colleagues and politicians. Read more.
Washington vetoed only two bills while president. President Washington rejected both pieces of legislation on ideological concerns, and Congress was unable to overturn the veto. He vetoed the Apportionment Bill in 1792 because of constitutional concerns that the law would not divide each state’s population evenly when determining representation, potentially creating an imbalance in power. Shortly before leaving office, Washington vetoed a bill aimed at cutting the size and cost of the military, objecting to a provision that dissolved two companies of light cavalry.
President Washington advocated for a patent system. Safeguarding the rights of authors and inventions was important to the founding fathers, so important that part of Article I of the Constitution provided Congress with the power to create a method of granting patents. Washington also saw the importance of creating a patent system. On January 8, 1790, during his first State of the Union, he called on Congress to establish a system. Washington said, “The advancement of Agriculture, commerce and Manufactures, by all proper means, will not, I trust, need recommendation.” After months of back and forth between the House of Representatives and Senate, legislation was finally agreed upon. On April 10, 1790, Washington signed the Patent Act of 1790 into law. Read more.
President Washington established the precedent for a two-term limit. As his second term in office drew to a close in 1796, President Washington chose not to seek re-election. Mindful of the precedent his conduct set for future presidents, he feared that if he were to die while in office, Americans would view the presidency as a lifetime appointment. Instead, he decided to step down from power, providing the standard of a two-term limit that would eventually be enshrined in the Twenty-Second Amendment to the Constitution. Read more.
Washington’s famed Farewell Address warned of three interrelated dangers that threatened to destroy the Union: regionalism, partisanship, and foreign entanglements. President Washington informed the American people of his retirement in a public letter, now known as his Farewell Address. In it, he warned his countrymen not to let regional loyalties overwhelm national attachments, fearing that geographic identities would serve as the foundation for the development of political parties. While partisanship now is inseparable from the American political process, in the early republic most condemned parties as divisive, disruptive, and the tools of demagogues seeking power. Washington worried that partisanship would lead to a “spirit of revenge” in which parties would not govern for the good of the people, but only to obtain and maintain their grip on power. His Farewell Address cautioned that partisanship “open[ed] the door to foreign influence and corruption” because it weakened voters’ abilities to make reasoned and disinterested choices. Rather than choosing the best men for office, the people would base decisions on “ill-founded jealousies and false alarms,” and so elect those in league with foreign conspirators. Learn more.
A video about George Washington’s birthday is available here.
Read more here about how George Washington celebrated his birthday.