Even before the United States won its independence, Americans were celebrating Presidents Day. At Valley Forge in 1778, fifers and drummers played music on February 22 to mark the occasion. It was George Washington’s birthday.
Two hundred and forty-five years later, we celebrate the remarkable leaders who have made America’s experiment in self-government endure, including George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and those who have upheld their ideals for nearly 250 years. Today, it is our job to pass on the lessons of our Founders to the next generation.
Lessons from the Founding Fathers
From the beginning, America was different. John Adams chose Thomas Jefferson, the youngest delegate to the Second Continental Congress, to explain our guiding philosophy in the Declaration of Independence. We are a nation dedicated to the self-evident truth that every human being is created equal. The purpose of our government is to secure Americans’ inalienable rights, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
The Founding Fathers’ examples also made America exceptional. After he won the Revolutionary War, many people thought that General George Washington would become a monarch, just like most revolutionaries before him. Instead, he resigned his commission and returned to his home. When King George III heard of Washington’s plan to step down, he marveled, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”
Washington later presided over the Constitutional Convention, working for four months in a sweltering hall to write what Frederick Douglass later described as a “glorious liberty document.” Most Americans focus on the importance of the Bill of Rights and its protections for freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and religious liberty. I believe the framework of our government was even more profound. The Constitution provides for the separation of powers and a system of checks and balances, preventing any one government official from becoming all powerful. It empowers citizens to govern themselves at the state and local level through federalism. The Constitution works. Today, it is the longest-lasting charter of government on the planet.
Teach the Next Generation
This history is worth celebrating, not only because it is the story America tells about itself, but because it is true. I am reminded of that fact every day I walk past paintings and statues of the Founding Fathers in the United States Capitol.
When my wife, Gayle, and I visit Mississippi schools, we are impressed by students’ knowledge of American history and their ability to debate complex issues. We take time to thank their dedicated parents and teachers who make that possible.
They often tell us how challenging it can be to have nuanced conversations about American history, given today’s woke politics. Unfortunately, debunked narratives like the 1619 Project have become fashionable in some circles, despite the fact that many of our nation’s most distinguished historians have pointed out the distortions and falsehoods.
Nevertheless, I am confident that the next generation is in good hands. Mississippi parents and teachers are engaged, both in the classroom and at the dinner table. We should all take time on Presidents Day to talk about what this holiday means. But in case those conversations have not started quite yet, I will pass on some advice from President Ronald Reagan to today’s young people: “Children, if your parents haven't been teaching you what it means to be an American, let 'em know and nail 'em on it. That would be a very American thing to do.”