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Washington's Birthday postcard, about 1930. ID.
Ticket for a Washington's Birthday ball held February 22, 1870. ID.26.173.1


February 2006

George Washington, American Hero and Symbol

There was a time when February meant George Washington's Birthday, not a generic celebration of "Presidents' Day."

In the early years of our nation, the American people had no bigger hero than George Washington. Washington had won the respect and loyalty of the soldiers who served under him during the Revolutionary War. As our first president, Washington was guided by his strong belief in democratic ideals and in the American people as he led the young nation. Washington had the respect of prominent people and everyday citizens. When he made public appearances, crowds turned out to cheer him.


MORE: George Washington, American Hero and Symbol

This bust of George Washington was made about 1785 by sculptor Jean Antoine Houdon. ID.36.685.1
Commemorative punch bowl honoring George Washington, made between 1800 and 1805. ID.00.4.1853
George Washington's role as symbol of liberty extended to Independence Day, as shown here in this early 20th century July 4th greeting card.


The Henry Ford has many artifacts in its collection that tell the story of a nation's devotion to its first national hero.

This plaster bust of George Washington was based upon a life mask made by the famous French sculptor, Jean Antoine Houdon. In 1785, a few years after the Revolutionary War had ended, the Virginia legislature commissioned Houdon to make a life-size statue of the American hero. Houdon traveled from Paris to Washington's Mount Vernon plantation near Alexandria, Virginia. There the sculptor made a life mask of Washington, which he used to complete the life-size statue once he returned to Paris. Houdon also produced a number of plaster busts of Washington dressed in a toga, including this one. Houdon was known for his skill in producing life-like images of his subjects, so this bust probably gives us a good idea of what George Washington looked like just before he became the first President of the United States.

By 1791, two years into George Washington's presidency, the celebration of his birthday had become a widespread custom. People in cities and towns all over America held balls or banquets on that day to honor their leader. By the early 1800s, the holiday was a national event second only to the Fourth of July. A traditional day for relaxing and celebrating, the occasion was not only about honoring a hero, but reaffirming common sentiments shared by many Americans. America was even then a place of economic, religious, and ethnic diversity. George Washington was a universal symbol of liberty-and a love of liberty was something that united the people of the new nation.

Though the Washington's Birthday holiday has since evolved into the more generic "Presidents' Day" of current times, for over 200 years George Washington has endured as an important symbol of the American struggle for independence and liberty.

Henry J. Prebys


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