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February 16, 2009

It's Washington's Birthday, Not Presidents' Day

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February 22 is the birthday of George Washington -- the man who, more than any other, made possible our republican form of government.

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's Birthday.

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 traditions.

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 Mount Vernon.

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 political system:

  1. Uphold the Constitution. Washington reminds us that the Constitution -- by which our government is carefully limited yet strong enough to defend our rights and liberties -- is our strongest check against tyranny and the best bulwark of our freedom.
  2. Beware of the politics of passion. Washington was concerned about the excessive partisanship that stirs up individual passions, bringing out the worst aspects of popular government.
  3. Protect American independence. Although often remembered as an isolationist, Washington advocated an active policy of building the political, economic and physical strength for America to defy external threats and pursue its own long-term national purpose.
  4. Encourage morality and religion. Public virtue cannot be expected in a climate of private vice, Washington reminds us, and the most important source of virtue is religion and morality.

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 countrymen."

Matthew 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."

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