When I was a boy growing up in the Bronx, February was a great month for one-day holidays honoring our greatest presidents. We celebrated Lincoln's birthday on Feb. 12 and Washington's on Feb. 22.
We got off from school on both days -- neat little vacations tucked into the chilly, gray days of February.
Now, sadly, neither president's birthday is considered a big deal. We have rolled both of them into what is called Presidents Weekend -- an excuse for a shopping orgy, a boon to retailers. It seems like a desecration of the memory of these two great Americans.
I wrote the other day about Lincoln's special relationship to New York, including the anti-slavery speech he gave at Cooper Union that was vital to his election as president. But George Washington was even more involved with New York. He made history here -- and helped save the continental army from destruction.
On April 13, 1776, Washington rode his horse into the city, leading five regiments. The British had evacuated the city and made their temporary headquarters on a warship in the harbor. Washington felt New York was vital to the success of the war. He thought it important to keep control of the Hudson River lest the British split the northern and southern colonies.
In Philadelphia, meanwhile, the Declaration of Independence was written and ratified and, on July 9, 1776, Washington lined his troops up near our present City Hall Park to hear the inspiring words of the founding fathers read aloud.
Meanwhile, the British were mobilizing a fleet of 500 ships carrying an army of 32,000 soldiers to drive out Washington's troops, who had retreated to Brooklyn. When the British landed a heavily superior force in Brooklyn, Washington and his troops fell back again. On a fog-shrouded night, they were able to cross into Manhattan, ready to fight another day. Washington retreated further into Harlem and, eventually, in the Battle of Harlem Heights, the Americans won a small victory.
But Washington had to continue his strategic retreats. The general and his troops took on better trained and equipped British troops in Pelham Bay and White Plains. The brilliant commander kept retreating all the way to New Jersey and, ultimately, he mounted a surprise attack on the British at Trenton. Washington kept retreating until he, ultimately, won a final victory.
At the end of the war, Washington addressed his officers at Fraunces Tavern down near the Battery. His eyes filled with tears as he spoke. "With a heart full of love and gratitude, I now take my leave of you. I most devoutly wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable."
He set out for his home in Virginia, believing his service to the United States was over but, six years later he was back in New York, drafted to perform a task as daunting as his leadership in the Revolutionary War. He was asked to become the first President of the United States. He traveled to New York from Mt. Vernon and, on April 23, 1789, stepped off a barge to be greeted by a committee of distinguished New Yorkers.
Although the skies were overcast, the atmosphere was festive. And soon the sun came out and guns were fired as boats swarmed in Long Island Sound and on the Hudson River. Crowds cheered as Washington walked to the house in which he was to stay until the inauguration.
A week later, on a festive day for thousands of New Yorkers, Washington was escorted to Federal Hall, where a statue stands today depicting his inauguration. He was dressed in a deep brown suit with white metal buttons, white stockings and a sword. He bowed as people hailed him again and again and guns boomed.
Washington took the oath of office from Chancellor Robert Livingston. Washington repeated after him:
"I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of resident of the United States and will, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." From the many citizens assembled on the narrow streets there were more cheers as Washington leaned down and kissed the bible and said, "So help me God!"
Church bells rang. Cannons went off in the harbor. It was a New York style celebration more than two centuries before we perfected the idea with ticker tape parades and marching bands.
In his inaugural address, Washington said: ''The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the Republican model of government, are justly considered, as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.''
George Washington was born 277 years ago on Feb. 22. He was a son of Virginia but New York can claim him, too, as one of our own.