PRESIDENTS DAY IS ONE OF THOSE NON-HOLIDAY HOLIDAYS that has quickly passed without much fanfare, unless you went shopping. If you were in the market for a new (or pre-owned) car or couldn’t resist any item that was offered for 50 percent off, there’s a good chance that you may have celebrated. On the other hand, for most of us, the day passed without merrymaking.
Until 1971, we celebrated actual birthdays for actual presidents, and February was the month to observe the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln, born Feb. 12, 1809 and George Washington, born Feb. 22, 1732.
Now, Presidents Day is officially the third Monday of the month and is celebrated with automobile ads draped with cherries and hatchets, which, I suppose the artwork is supposed to honor the memory of George Washington.
Washington is worthy of much more. Under his leadership, a rag-tag band of farmers defeated the strongest military power in the world to establish our independence. Then, after turning down the suggestion to become king, he helped forge a union of states, approve a constitution and establish many of the precedents that led to a democratic republic.
GW made several visits to Connecticut, the first when he was 21, and on his way to Boston in February 1756 as commander of the Virginia militia during the French and Indian War. Traveling during the frigid winter on horseback, he left New York and followed the shoreline to New London and then hurried north to Norwich and on to Providence and Boston.
Twenty years later, as commander in chief of American forces, he stayed at the Leffingwell Inn in Norwich on April 8, 1776 and the following night at Nathaniel Shaw’s mansion in New London.
Eastern Connecticut and the Shoreline towns strongly supported the cause of liberty and provided militiamen, supplies and leadership for the war effort. Among those patriotic citizens was John McCurdy of Old Lyme with whom Washington stayed on April 10, 1776.
McCurdy came to Connecticut from County Antrim, Ireland, in 1745 when he was 21. He married Anna Lord, whose father opposed the arrangement and did not consent until she threatened to “jump out of the window.”
McCurdy had a small store in the Peck Tavern in Lyme, and successfully built his business until he had his own vessels and carried on a profitable trade with Holland, the West Indies and Ireland.
Described as a “high-spirited Irish gentleman,” McCurdy long opposed the English and his fellow colonists who supported them. Ten years before the War for Independence began, he and the Rev. Stephen Johnson, the pastor of the nearby Congregational Church for 40 years, wrote letters to the New London Gazette attacking Connecticut Gov. Thomas Fitch for not acting to oppose the Stamp Act.
It was the inalienable rights of Englishmen, they wrote in 1765, to be taxed by their own representatives. “Tis ridiculous to common sense,” they argued, that 2 million free people can be represented by no representative not elected by them.
During the war, New London was attacked and burned by the American traitor, Benedict Arnold, and McCurdy lost two stores, a house and barn. After the war, to compensate for the loss, he became quite wealthy from receiving a large tract of land in Ohio as part of Connecticut’s “Western Reserve.”
Washington returned to Connecticut in September 1780 to meet with his new French ally Comte de Rochambeau in the Hartford home of Jeremiah Wadsworth to consider a strategic plan to defeat the British.
The following year, they met again at the home of Joseph Webb in Wethersfield where Washington urged the French to attack British forces in New York City. Rochambeau declined, but suggested, instead, that when the French fleet reached the Chesapeake Bay, they quickly march their combined armies to Virginia where they could trap the British army under the command of General Cornwallis.
Washington recorded in his diary: “Fixed with count Rochambeau the plan of campaign.”
Starting in Newport, R.I., French troops marched across 125 miles in Connecticut to join Washington’s army near White Plains and then marched together to Virginia. Arriving in Virginia, they launched their attack.
With the French navy blocking off any English escape route by sea and the combined American and French army surrounding the British on land, the British were forced to surrender. It was the last major battle in the war. The American colonies gained their independence.
Today the Washington-Rochambeau National Historic Trail (W3R) marks the historic 650-mile route and is a National Historic Trail administered by the National Park Service. There are historic markers in a dozen Connecticut communities.
Washington’s next visit to Connecticiut was when he returned as president on a grand tour of New England. Traveling by coach and occasionally by horseback, he was enthusiastically welcomed at every stop. The Connecticut Courant reported on Oct. 26, 1789 that “the Illustrious President” arrived in this City on Monday “escorted by the Governor’s Troop of Horse Guards, dressed in an elegant uniform, and by a large number of Gentlemen on horseback.”
To have a generic Presidents Day seems an empty and meaningless gesture. There was a time when Washington was first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen. Today, he’s first for bargain-hunting. Maybe it’s time to rethink this holiday.