Boomers Said, “Hail to the Chief”

We’ve arrived at another Presidents’ Day on the calendar, but as any Baby Boomer can tell you, the holiday didn’t exist when boomers were young. The day, still officially called Washington’s Birthday on the federal list of holidays, was marked for February 22nd, Washington’s birthday. President Rutherford B. Hayes first signed the declaration of the holiday in 1879, but it only covered the District of Columbia. It wasn’t until 1885 that all states adopted the holiday. At that time, only four other days were nationally-recognized holidays: New Year’s Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.

In 1971 the Uniform Monday Holiday Act took several federal holidays and moved them to Mondays so people would have a number of long weekends throughout the year. As a result, the day is celebrated the third Monday in February. The nation’s retail industry and labor unions wholeheartedly supported the change, and it was the retail industry that brought other presidents into the picture as a way of extending their weekend sales opportunities. Today we embrace the notion of celebrating all of the country’s presidents, rather than just Washington, or Washington and Lincoln, though their images still dominate the landscape of sale ads.

In the early boomer years of the 1950s and ’60s, there was Washington’s birthday on February 22nd, and Lincoln’s birthday on February 12th. It was up to each individual state as to which of the days, or both, were official holidays. In Mister Boomer’s state, the only way the days were any different than any other day was that the post office and banks were closed. Everyone else seemed to be working, and schools were open.

Schools enjoyed teaching about arguably the country’s two most famous presidents. Starting in kindergarten, kids were taught the story of how George Washington chopped down his father’s cherry tree, and when confronted, owned up to the act by saying, “I cannot tell a lie.” As a result, Mister Boomer recalls coloring pages of the images of a hatchet, cherries, tri-corner hat and a chopped down cherry tree. These symbolic images were also fodder for drawings and art projects. By contrast, poor Abe Lincoln only had the symbol of a stovepipe hat — and it was black at that — and possibly a standing Abe Lincoln holding the Gettysburg Address.

Like the story of Columbus “discovering” a New World, the Washington cherry tree story was repeated for decades, without regard to whether the story was actually true. In fact, there is no evidence that the story is factual, at least in its entirety. Most historians agree that the story began when Parson Mason Weems published a book called, “The Life of Washington,” in 1800, one year after Washington’s death. Lacking corroborating evidence, it would appear Weems, an author and not a historian, concocted the story as a parable to teach children the virtue of honesty. Several stories in his biography are considered dubious in nature, so Weems is credited with expanding the mythology of Washington.

Recently, however, a piece of cloth that depicted the cherry tree story, made in Germantown, Pennsylvania, came up for auction. The cloth, if authentic, was made prior to the publication of Weems’ book, and before Washington died in 1799. Therefore, the story may not have originated with Weems, but existed earlier and Weems adopted it. Nonetheless, Weems did not actually write that Washington chopped down the tree; merely that he “barked” the tree (though the story says the tree was sufficiently hacked up that it probably did not survive). Taking these two items that have surfaced into consideration, that has led some historians to conclude that there may be some truth to the story after all.

Washington was a revered figure in the early days of our Republic, so it was not a far-fetched notion that his legend and myth would expand with each passing year. As far as some truth, it has been noted that the story begins when Washington, as a boy age six or seven, was given a hatchet as a birthday gift. Knowing that young boys do like to chop at things at that age, it is plausible to suppose the young Washington took a whack at a cherry tree and chipped the bark. However, it is also plausible to surmise that a boy of that age may not have the physical strength to actually chop a tree down; it would have to be a pretty small tree to fall with only a few chops from a young hand.

So, did he or didn’t he? That’s one for the historians to argue. As for boomers like Mister B, the story brings back school day memories that were synonymous with the holiday we now know as Presidents’ Day.

Were you taught the lesson of Washington’s cherry tree honesty in school, boomers? Which president’s birthday did your state celebrate?