Half the states in the Union have abandoned Washington’s Birthday on Monday for some variation of pin-the-apostrophe-on-the-word-President holiday.
We can all be proud that Arkansas is not among them.
To begin with, there is no such thing as a national Presidents (or President’s or Presidents’) Day. When Congress changed the law in 1968 to move the date of observation to the third Monday in February, it did not change the name. If you’re the doubting type, visit the federal Office of Personnel Management website (opm.gov). The official federal holiday is still, as it’s been since 1879, Washington’s Birthday.
As well it should be. If any American is worthy of a national holiday, the Father of our Country is singularly deserving.
That distinction doesn’t demean other Americans or their noteworthy achievements. It merely acknowledges the universal truth: George Washington was indeed the “indispensable man” of the founding era as heralded by historian James Flexner in his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography.
Like the eponymous monument, he towered over a host of pivotal, luminary statesmen. What’s more, his political contemporaries knew and accepted as much. The disagreements between Federalists and Anti-Federalists were legion, yet they unanimously agreed on Washington’s merit and credentials to be the nation’s first chief executive.
Since the nation’s inception, it was always common knowledge from kindergarten classes to the Oval Office that without Washington there would have been “no independence, no Union, no Constitution, and no Republic.”
Washington’s birthday was a grass-roots national celebration for 100 years before Congress got around to codifying it by statute, but over the past few decades that has waned dramatically.
Despite our legislature’s fidelity to the holiday’s namesake, far too many businesses within our state’s borders join innumerable others around the country in shamelessly behaving as if Monday is “National Shill Day.”
What untold blessings the citizenry might obtain were the same energy directed toward Presidents Day sales applied to the study and emulation of our first president! How much more industry, service, sacrifice and achievement the nation might enjoy if more of us aspired to imitate Washington’s example of will, discipline, effort and perseverance. Or if we internalized as counsel Washington’s own succinct explanation of his successes shortly before his death: He had always striven to walk a “straight line.”
He had endeavored, he wrote, “as far as human frailties, and perhaps strong passions, would enable him, to discharge the relative duties to his Maker and fellow-men, without seeking any indirect or left handed attempts to acquire popularity.”
Words of wisdom, indeed, to a culture that constantly confuses popularity and leadership. And there are countless more wise words where those came from.
Nineteenth-century author J.F. Schroeder called Washington the World’s Apostle of Liberty, due to the general’s prolific correspondence and his heroism in the Revolutionary War of principles “that involved the interests of all mankind.”
Washington wrote an estimated 20,000 letters and his collected writings (to date) fill more than 60 volumes.
What if all American adolescents today were required to copy down the same 110 Rules of Civility that Washington did, and commit to conforming to them in attitude and action? Instead, young Americans can complete 17 consecutive years of education and yet command barely a cursory knowledge of the only American truly without peer.
This demands remedying.
Restore Washington’s place to “first in the hearts of his countrymen,” and we will simultaneously restore his myriad virtues as extolled examples at a time when exemplary role models are desperately needed.
Let that restoration begin by banning the abomination known as Presidents Day. As one historian noted, to bundle a Buchanan and Washington under the same holiday is to “conflate copper with gold.”
The original purpose for national holidays was to focus Americans’ attention in unity on concepts greater than themselves, not to merely take time off from work for recreation. As conceived by the founders, Thanksgiving and Independence Day celebrated national principles around which all citizens should rightly rally. This notion has extended to subsequent holidays as well, such as Memorial Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Requiring all states to observe Washington’s Birthday may not revoke Monday’s pervading crass commercialism, but it will at least result in renaming it all—and repetitive name recognition is a positive first step in rebranding.
Next, let’s capitalize on the little flash of parade fever emanating from the vicinity of Pennsylvania Avenue by establishing an annual Washington’s Birthday parade in the nation’s capital.
This initiative could also serve to re-institute the practice in states and localities, where it once was ubiquitous every February.
The capital city that bears his name and is host to Congress has sunk to levels of such low esteem that it may have transplanted his personage in the minds of many, perhaps most, Americans.
We the people need to return to a collective state of mind in which, when the word “Washington” is heard, it once again instills by common consent the standard for illustrious character of the American spirit.
It’s a long journey, so start with a small step—correct anyone who refers to Monday as Presidents Day.