Bring Back Washington's Birthday
Once again, government buildings, banks, and some businesses and
schools have closed to commemorate that most "amorphous" of
holidays: Presidents' Day.
The term, which came into use in the late 1960s, represents a
convergence of the demands of the workplace with a good dosage of
political correctness tossed in for good measure. Would that it
were Washington' Birthday again.
For nearly two centuries, that's the way Feb. 22 was known across
the nation. The general's troops set aside that day in his honor in
the winter of 1776, following Washington's crossing of the Delaware
and his surprising victories over Hessian mercenaries in Trenton
and British troops in Princeton. The practice continued into and
beyond Washington's presidency. Congress put its official stamp on
it after his death.
Until 1968, no one questioned the wisdom of naming what had been
the principal government holiday between New Year's Day and Good
Friday in honor of the man who did more to found this nation and
all it represents than any other. Washington's parents had even
been thoughtful enough to see that he would be born at a time of
year when his future countrymen had their minds on ski vacations
and car sales.
In 1968, Congress decided retroactively that most events worthy of
national commemoration - save for Thanksgiving, Christmas and July
4th - happened on a Monday. Its intent was to maximize the number
of three-day weekends.
Washington's Birthday got lost in the shuffle. Complicating
matters - but only in northern enclaves -was the observation of
Lincoln's birthday Feb. 12. Some states retained this holiday
regardless of whether it fell on a Monday. Others incorporated it
into Presidents' Day weekend (over three days or four.) Then came a
new winter holiday in honor of Martin Luther King. (Not a federal
holiday until the 1980s, it falls beyond the scope of
Monday-madness legislation. Give it time.)
Any renaming and reshuffling of the familiar necessarily creates
confusion. This, in turn begets ample opportunity for mischief.
Presidents' Day has been no exception.
About the time the term "Presidents Day" was taking hold,
academicians who had been demanding that history be taught "from
the bottom up" began winning out. Most claimed their goal was to
include stories of people and groups who had been "left out."
Regarding history as an exercise in building self esteem, rather
than explaining the past, they gave equal weight to persons whose
contributions may not have been of equal value as the presidents,
generals, and other dead white men they gave short shrift. As Gary
Nash || promulgator of the infamous "Goals 2000" curriculum - put
it, "part of 'new history' is to liberate American students from
the prison house of facts."
Others within this movement had an even broader agenda. In the
name of "relativism," they wrought havoc on what were once symbols
of national unity. What they could banish, they could denigrate,
debunk, and tarnish. If their Victorian predecessors had found
nothing wrong in the American story, this group saw little right.
To this "blame America first" band of scholars, Washington was ripe
for the pickings. Much of the "popular culture" soon followed
President's Day soon became part their strategy. No longer the
topic of essay contests, school assembly programs, plays and
pageants, Washington was reduced in size and standing to but one of
42 men who had been president. His contributions were no more
stressed and praised than those of Franklin Pierce.
Having leveled Washington, the academics set out to humanize him.
More and more they cast him as an object of ridicule than as a
figure worthy of emulation. In the age of Dr. Ruth, comedians joked
about all the places Washington had slept. Where would they have
had the head of a guerrilla army, who visited his home once in
seven years, hang his hat? There were wisecracks about his wooden
teeth. (Actually, they were ivory.) What was so humorous about 18th
In order to make the world safe from hypocrisy, they seized upon
fabricated stories about Washington - like Parson Weems's tale of
young George admitting to having chopped down his father's cherry
tree - to call his reputation for honesty and integrity into
dispute. They ignored what there was in Washington's character that
inspired parables inviting the young to emulate the father of their
Many really were inspired. En route to his inauguration in 1861,
Abraham Lincoln told the New Jersey State Senate:
"May I be pardoned if, upon this occasion, I mention that away
back in my childhood, the earliest days of my being able to read, I
got a hold of a small book, such a one as few of the younger
members have ever seen, Weems's Life of Washington. I remember all
the accounts there given of the battlefields and struggles for the
liberties of the country, and none fixed themselves upon my
imagination so deeply as the struggle here Trenton . . . and you
all know, for you have all been boys, how these early impressions
last longer than any others. I recollect thinking then, boy even
though I was, that there must have been something more than common
that those men struggled for . . . that something even more than
national independence; that something that held out a great promise
to all the people of the world to all time come."
In 1932, the commission that oversaw the bicentennial of
Washington's birth, hopeful it might encourage other 14-year-olds
on to greatness, placed reproductions of Gilbert Stuart's portrait
of Washington in the classrooms of America. Commission members,
like Lincoln, had no doubt that leaders could and should serve as
role models to American youth. (Bring those photos back!)
That something to which Lincoln referred was human freedom. He
drew upon Weems's again in his greatest speech. He had seen in that
volume, a woodcut of Washington inspecting graves at Valley Forge.
Beneath was the caption: "that these dead shall not have died in
vain." Lincoln incorporated the line he read at 14 into the address
he gave at Gettysburg at 54. His talk remains the most concise
definition of self-government in existence.
In this year, which marks the 200th anniversary of Washington's
death, Congress should recommit the nation to the values that gave
it life and continue to inspire the world. It should launch the new
millennium by insisting that the Monday holiday set aside each
February be called George Washington's
The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association is working hard to attract
attention back to George Washington. They have assembled a
traveling exhibit and have asked the 50 governors to dedicate a day
to honor Washington. The nation's leaders should proclaim there
already is one. Calling the holiday by its proper name will not
cost a dime, but will speak volumes about what the nation values as
it turns another century. They can undo the nonsense that goes by
the name Presidents' Day. Make today the last Presidents' Day.
Alvin S. Felzenberg, is a former visiting fellow at the
Originally published in The Washington Times (02/15/99)