February 16, 2009
By Matthew Spalding, Ph.D.
February 22 is the birthday of George Washington -- the man who,
more than any other, made possible our republican form of
The third Monday in February has come to be known, wrongly, as
President's Day. America's political leaders should take this
occasion to remember Washington's deeds, recollect his advice, and
again call the holiday celebrating him by its legal name:
Washington biographer James Flexner called him the
"indispensable man" of the American Founding. Without Washington,
America would never have won our War of Independence. He played the
central role in the Constitutional Convention and set the
precedents that define what it means to be a constitutional
executive: strong and energetic, aware of the limits of authority
but guarding the prerogatives of office.
Washington not only rejected offers to make him king, but was
one of the first leaders in world history to relinquish power
voluntarily. His peaceful transfer of the presidency to John Adams
in 1797 inaugurated one of America's greatest democratic
For eight years, Washington led his small army through the
rigors of war, from the defeats in New York and the daring crossing
of the Delaware River to the hardships of Valley Forge and the
ultimate triumph at Yorktown. Through force of character and
brilliant political leadership, Washington transformed an
underfunded militia into a capable force that, although never able
to take the British army head-on, outwitted and defeated the
world's mightiest military power. And when the job was done,
Washington resigned his commission and returned to his beloved
Washington was instrumental in bringing about the Constitutional
Convention, and his widely publicized participation gave the
resulting document a credibility and legitimacy it would otherwise
have lacked. Having been immediately and unanimously elected
president of the convention, he worked actively throughout the
proceedings. His voting record shows his consistent support for a
strong executive and defined national powers. The vast powers of
the presidency, as one delegate to the Constitutional Convention
wrote, would not have been made as great "had not many of the
members cast their eyes towards General Washington as president;
and shaped their ideas of the powers to be given to a president, by
their opinions of his virtue."
Washington wrote extensively and eloquently about the principles
and purposes of the American Founding. He was a champion of
religious freedom, of immigration, and of the rule of law. His most
significant legacy is his Farewell Address of 1796, which ranks
with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as one of
the greatest documents of the Founding. The Farewell Address is
best remembered for its counsel about international affairs:
Washington recommended commercial relations with other nations but
as few political entanglements as possible.
Often overlooked is his sage advice about the character of our
Although Washington's Birthday was celebrated as early as 1778,
Congress did not officially recognize as a national holiday until
1870. The Monday Holiday Law in 1968 moved the holiday from
February 22 to the third Monday in February. Section 6103 of Title
5, United States Code, currently designates that legal federal
holiday as "Washington's Birthday." Contrary to popular opinion, no
action by Congress or order by any president has changed
"Washington's Birthday" to "President's Day."
Several times, legislators have introduced legislation to direct
all federal government entities to refer to the holiday as George
Washington's Birthday. Better yet: the president could issue an
executive order that, in one stroke of the pen, would not only
enforce the law, but also remind all Americans that George
Washington still deserves to be "first in the hearts of his
Spalding, Ph.D., director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for
American Studies at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org), is
executive editor of "The Heritage Guide to the Constitution."
February 22 is the birthday of George Washington -- the man who, more than any other, made possible our republican form of government.
Matthew Spalding, Ph.D.
Vice President, American Studies and Director, B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics
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