Give the day to Mr. Washington

  • 20 February 2020
  • NormanL

Monday was Presidents Day, a federal holiday that most people don't really think twice about. That is a genuine shame, because before there was "Presidents Day," America celebrated the February 22nd birth of the most consequential president in our history: George Washington.

Author Richard Brookhiser made the case back in 2013 for ditching the generic "Presidents Day" and returning to celebrating Washington's birthday:

Washington’s reputation suffered an indirect but damaging hit in 1968. It came from those masterminds of many bad ideas—business lobbyists, labor unions and Congress. The Uniform Monday Holiday Act established the “uniform annual observances of certain legal public holidays,” moving Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day and Veterans Day to Mondays (the third in February, the last in May and the fourth in October, respectively). Federal workers wanted three-day weekends, and the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers thought productivity would rise without midweek interruptions. Memorial Day and Veterans Day were already somewhat abstract observances—what did it matter what day they fell on? But to mess with a man’s birthday is to steal a piece of his soul.

To add insult to injury, some wanted to call the new February holiday Presidents Day, in honor of both Washington and Lincoln. This failed in Congress—the official name of the holiday is still Washington’s Birthday—but the impression lingered. George and Honest Abe start hawking cars and washers as soon as the Valentine’s Day cards get put away. Or maybe that informal plural noun embraces every dead president, including Franklin Pierce and Chester Alan Arthur. If we honor them all, they must all be equally honorable (or equally forgettable).

Time to put Washington back where he belongs, on February 22, and first in our hearts.

And he belongs there for some truly excellent reasons:

George III was right: Washington was the greatest character of his age—and of our age, as a glance at the headlines shows. We live in an era of revolutions, and so many are sad botches. The former Soviet Union is Putinland, plus a collection of feral -stans. The former Yugoslavia is only now emerging from a carnival of war crimes. The Arab Spring exchanges one group of despots for new, more pious ones. Royalty is out of fashion, but aged megalomaniacs and their kin rule by divine right in all but name—the Kims in North Korea, the Castros in Cuba, Robert Mugabe still hanging on in Zimbabwe.

Revolution is hard—as hard as freedom. It takes work, willpower, military skill, political cunning—and the wisdom and humility to know that all power is on loan, and at the service of the life, liberty and happiness of one’s fellow citizens. A big man in a hick country figured that out two centuries ago, and for 22 years—from taking command of the Continental Army, to attending the inauguration of his successor in 1797—he made it work. Happy birthday, George.

Hppy birthday, indeed, Mr. President.