The Buck Stops Here

February 18, 2013

I just deleted the latest of maybe 30 promotional emails from the past three days urging me to take advantage of Presidents’ Day sales events. That doesn’t count the 30 to 40 that came in during the past week and the bunches of fliers that arrived in the mail. (I keep cancelling—they keep sending.) We all love a good bargain and it got me thinking. How much money will Americans actually spend over the Presidents’ Day holiday? I can’t find a good estimate but every retailer seems really interested in getting us to come through their real and virtual doors.

Most of us won’t even use cash but if we do, it’s a great opportunity to remember the reason why we’re out there spending money in the first place. It’s Presidents’ Day! When congress chose to set aside the third Monday in each February for this holiday, they reaffirmed the holiday for Washington but unofficially split the difference and marked the birthdays of two of our greatest presidents—Washington and Lincoln. 

George Washington, our first president, born on February 22, is featured on quarters, every $1 dollar bill and on the new Presidential gold dollar series. Lincoln, born on February 12, is featured on pennies, the $5 dollar bill and also on the new Presidential gold dollar series. By 2010, 23 presidents were featured on our currency. In each year since, another four are added through the Presidential Gold dollar series which adds four more deceased presidents to the series in each year through 2015. Mint policy requires that currency features only deceased individuals although we have honored historical figures other than presidents.

Still it seems fitting while we’re out snagging bargains to consider the day and its purpose. Who were these men? What did they mean to us and our country? I have my own answers which change a little every year as I change and my perspective on our country changes. Washington was our wealthiest president by all measures but he swore off the trappings of privilege in office and rode a simple coach all the way to his inaugural celebration. At a time when leaders of nations were still anointed royalty, he set the tone for presidential conduct modeling humility, dignity, transparency and intelligence. I love that his visage graces our $1 bill, the anchor of our enterprise system. 

Lincoln was the consummate politician tempered by compassion, tested by his own personal tragedies, witty and wise. Determined and wily, he used all of his political and social capital to pass the 13th amendment to abolish slavery because he did not think a better time would come again even though it might cost him his life. How fitting that this self-taught lawyer from the back-woods of Illinois adorns our simple penny.

What other presidents deserve our attention and praise on this day? What do they teach us that we want to teach our children to celebrate? Lay out some bills and coins on the dining room table and say,” Look who’s come to dinner!” or start with the sign that sat on Harry Truman’s desk: “The buck stops here.” That will definitely get their attention. Happy Presidents’ Day!

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