Monday, February 15, 2010

Washington's Birthday/Presidents' Day

Today, February 15, the nation recognizes the contributions of. . . well, one or more of our presidents, depending on where you live and what guidelines--federal, state, or commercial--you choose to follow.

In the late nineteenth century, the United States Congress recognized George Washington's Birthday (which is actually February 22) as an official federal holiday. In the twentieth century, there was a push--including by business--to rename the holiday "Presidents' Day," in honor either of Washington and Abraham Lincoln (whose birthday is February 12) or of all the presidents.

Today, the federal holiday is still officially deemed "Washington's Birthday," but several states recognize other presidents on this day, and many Americans commonly refer to the day as "Presidents' Day" (or "President's Day," or "Presidents Day").

No matter which president(s) you celebrate today, it is a good time to reflect on which presidents were the greatest. Rating the presidents is a favorite pastime of historians and great fun for anyone interested in American history.

Ask your students to imagine that erosion caused by weather has caused the carvings of the presidents on Mount Rushmore--Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Lincoln--to wear away. Your students are tasked with recommending which four presidents' images should be newly carved into the stone.

Break the students up into groups and ask them to develop criteria for judging the presidents. You might want to use the criteria used by recent surveys, such as the C-SPAN survey. Alternatively, as another survey has suggested, perhaps the criteria for judging presidents should simply be how well they maintained peace, prosperity, and liberty for Americans. The Wall Street Journal 's 2005 presidential ranking results can be found here. Try not to prejudice your students by revealing the results of these polls until they have completed this activity.

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