Presidents Day is a farce. It is an empty excuse for three day weekends for some, and bonanza sales for others. But seriously, does any one spend any meaningful time reflecting and commemorating our Presidents? Of course not. This was not always so.
Celebrating Washington’s birthday began during the American Revolution at Valley Forge in 1778. Beginning the very next year, public celebrations were being held, including balls, marching bands, parades, gun salutes, speeches, toasts, and similar activities. In 1879, Congress established Washington’s birthday – February 22 – as a holiday for federal workers – the first person so honored. Punch and reading Washington’s Farewell Speech were commonplace.
President Richard Nixon and Congress ruined it by requiring that the holiday be celebrated on the third Monday in February. Because the day fell between Washington’s and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays, it was soon commonly recognized as Presidents Day, and the sales began in earnest. Like so much of history today, Washington all but disappeared.
This is a travesty. Washington’s contributions to the American experiment in self-government are unparalleled: Virginian legislator and revolutionary; Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army; President of the Constitutional Convention; and first President of the United States of America.
He is also great because for what he did not do. After he led the Continental Army to victory, he resigned his commission and returned to Mt. Vernon. He never sought a kingship. When most thought he would be President for life, he retired after two terms. His character was unassailable. His nemesis, King George III, remarked upon hearing of Washington’s retirement that he was “the greatest character of the age.”
In light of his indispensable role, why do we fail to properly remember him? First, he has become disconnected from his holiday. Instead of focusing on Washington, we celebrate the collage of Presidents – good and bad. Well, “celebrate” might be the wrong term – we might take advantage of a discount on a new tv or refrigerator. Undoubtedly we spend our time on anything other than commemorating Washington.
Second, a quick review of most history and civics curricula will quickly reveal that Washington is introduced a bit in elementary school, and mentioned in passing in high school. In college, assuming a student actually attends an American history course that addresses the founding era, there is a distinct bias to dwell on other more cerebral Founding Fathers like Thomas Jefferson. When Washington is the focus, it is usually through a condemnation as a slaveholder. A most fair critique. Still, Washington’s remarkable manumission of his slaves upon Martha’s death is usually overlooked as is his remarkable career.
Third, some now openly disdain and attack our Founders as backwards, racist, patriarchs who should only be condemned. This perspective is myopic, entitled, and resentful – gratitude is impossible for these critics. They completely misunderstand how revolutionary the Founding Generation was. Washington risked his life over and over for the the First Principles of the rule of law, unalienable rights, limited government, the Social Compact, equality, and the right to alter or abolish oppressive government. Of course he was flawed, but it is easy to sit in judgment 230+ years later, in cushy chairs living off the greatness the founding generation made possible, and whine about how the men and women who stood up for liberty and made their ability to speak freely were imperfect. Without Washington, the world would be much more oppressive, unequal, hierarchal, and patriarchal than it is today.
Time to turn the tide by reinvigorating our civic celebrations. And not just by reviving Washington’s own holiday. Washington’s legacy should not be relegated to a single day each year — especially when that day is combined with every other President. That’s why my then 10-year-old daughter Leah and I included him as a vital part of Patriot Week. Patriot Week renews America’s spirit by celebrating the First Principles, Founding Fathers and other Patriots, vital documents and speeches, and flags that make America the greatest nation in world history.
Washington was the indispensable man who bequeathed us our freedom. Our generation has a responsibility to ensure that Washington’s contributions and vision burns in our hearts and minds for generations to come.
Michael Warren is an Oakland County Circuit Court Judge and co-founder of Patriot Week (www.PatriotWeek.org), America’s Survival Guide (www.AmericasSurvivalGuide.com), and host of the Patriot Lessons: American History & Civics Podcast.