Why we should undo ‘Presidents Day’ and honor our greatest hero on the actual day he was born.
ON FEBRUARY 23, 1792, Representative Fisher Ames of Massachusetts wrote home from Philadelphia, the nation’s capital: “Yesterday was the birthday. It was celebrated in a manner that must please the big man.” No need to say whose birthday, or who the big man was; February 22, as every American knew, was the birthday of President George Washington, the biggest man in the infant United States.
Americans continued to celebrate the big man’s birthday long after he left office. In 1832, a joint committee of Congress organized nationwide festivities to commemorate his centennial. On February 22, 1862, during a special joint session of Congress in the thick of the Civil War, Secretary of State William Seward read Washington’s presidential Farewell Address aloud (a tradition that is still observed today). Three decades later Congress declared Washington’s Birthday a federal holiday that through most of the 20th century occurred on February 22. Still an official holiday, it is no longer celebrated on his actual birthday and it no longer has much to do with Washington. The holiday has morphed into Presidents Day, and the nation that once looked to Washington for inspiration has lost touch with his achievements.
Every country, especially a new one, needs heroes and holidays. But America took to Washington and his birthday because of the kind of hero he was. First in war, first in peace, first in self-control: Washington had been by turns a general commanding a Revolutionary army, and a chief executive without term limits, yet he would not cling to either role. In 1783, at the close of the Revolution, he returned his military commission to the Congress that had given it to him, and in 1796, he informed the country that he would not run for office a third time. When his jobs were done, he went home to his farm. Fame and power never corrupted him; they scarcely seemed to tempt him. That was worth celebrating.
One hereditary monarch, George III, understood perfectly what his old rival had accomplished. After Washington left the presidency, His Majesty had a conversation with Benjamin West, the American expat artist who was Surveyor of the King’s Pictures. George III told West that Washington’s double retirement “placed him in a light the most distinguished of any man living.” He was, the king added, “the greatest character of the age.”
After Washington’s death in 1799 his reputation became monumental. The federal government moved to a brand-new city, named after him. Congress wanted to remove him from his vault at Mount Vernon and bury him under the dome of the Capitol; Washington’s heirs nixed that idea. Instead, a grand memorial obelisk was planned for the Mall. The ceremonial laying of the cornerstone in 1848 was attended by the oldest living Revolutionary widows, Mrs. Dolley Madison and Mrs. Eliza Hamilton. Both had known the great man, and their husbands had served him. Oratory flowed.
Here the mythical Washington eclipsed historical truth. The founding fathers were founding politicians, none more so than Washington, and their quarrels resonated through later party strife. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton fought over everything from the French Revolution (Madison liked it) to the federal government (Hamilton liked a strong one). President Washington had to choose between them, and time after time he chose Hamilton, to the point that he stopped speaking to Madison. But now all that was buried in nostalgia.
As the Washington Monument was going up, new fights raged over slavery. Sentimental souls hoped that reverence for Washington might paper them over. Throughout the 1850s Edward Everett, a Massachusetts lecturer and politician, toured the country with an oration on “The Character of George Washington,” raising money to restore Mount Vernon while urging restraint of the sectionalism that threatened to pull the country apart. Everett gave his speech 137 times. In the four-way election of 1860, he ran for vice president on the ticket of the Constitutional Union Party, which campaigned for peace at any price. America wasn’t interested. Everett’s party finished fourth in the popular vote, and five months later the guns went off at Fort Sumter.
The Civil War raised a new figure to Washington’s right hand. Abraham Lincoln had several leadership qualities that Washington lacked. He had a sense of humor and the common touch, and he could speak with the tongues of men and of angels. Washington was sober and reserved, and he led by deeds more than words. Lincoln benefited from technology: The still-new camera loved his big-boned melancholy face. Washington actually had more stage presence, which he had used to inspire soldiers and ride herd on colleagues, but the future would have to recover his charisma from paintings, most of them second-rate. Lincoln finally was struck down at the moment of triumph. If Washington was the Father of his Country, Lincoln was the martyred Son. Lincoln’s assassination on Good Friday was a powerful symbol to some.
New trials raised up new leaders. A century of world wars (I, II and Cold) shrank the Revolution to quaintness. When modern historians are polled to rank presidents—a parlor game begun by Arthur Schlesinger Sr. in 1948—Washington often comes in third, behind FDR and Lincoln. New deaths made new martyrs. The Father, Son and Holy Ghost of Don McLean’s treacly anthem “American Pie” (1971) were John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.—unless they were Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper. Bye, bye, big man.
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. Legislation introduced by Republican Congressman Frank Wolf of Virginia would reestablish Washington’s actual birthday as a legal holiday. “Does anyone here celebrate his birthday on the third Monday of a month?” Wolf asked at a recent hearing on the bill. “So why do we diminish the memory of the greatest American by turning his birthday into nothing more than a three-day weekend?”
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.
Richard Brookhiser is an American History columnist and the author of George Washington on Leadership.
Originally published in the February 2013 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.