“Perhaps the strongest feature in his character was prudence, never acting until every circumstance, every consideration, was maturely weighed; refraining if he saw a doubt, but, when once decided, going through with his purpose, whatever obstacles opposed.” — Thomas Jefferson on George Washington in a letter to Dr. Walter Jones — 1814
Across the land today is considered Presidents Day and a legal government holiday for government, postal, and many private sector employees. Government offices, post offices, banks, public schools, and many private businesses are closed.
Titled George Washington's Birthday, a federal holiday honoring George Washington was originally implemented by an Act of Congress in 1879 for government offices in the District of Columbia (20 Stat. 277) and expanded in 1885 to include all federal offices. As the first federal holiday to honor American citizens, the holiday was celebrated on Washington's actual birthday, February 22. On January 1, 1971, the federal holiday was shifted to the third Monday in February by the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. This date places it between February 15 and 21, which makes the name "Washington's Birthday" in some sense a misnomer, since it never occurs on Washington's actual birthday, either February 11 (Old Style), or February 22 (New Style).
The first attempt to create a generic Presidents Day occurred in 1951 when the "President's Day National Committee" was formed by Harold Stonebridge Fischer of Compton, California, who became its National Executive Director for the next two decades. The purpose was not to honor any particular President, but to honor the office of the Presidency. It was first thought that March 4, the original inauguration day, should be deemed Presidents Day. However, the bill recognizing the March 4 date was stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee (which had authority over federal holidays). That committee felt that, because of its proximity to Lincoln's and Washington's Birthdays, three holidays so close together would be unduly burdensome. During this time, however, the Governors of a majority of the individual states issued proclamations declaring March 4 to be Presidents' Day in their respective jurisdictions.
An early draft of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act would have renamed the holiday to "Presidents' Day" to honor the birthdays of both Washington and Lincoln, which would explain why the chosen date falls between the two, but this proposal failed in committee and the bill as voted on and signed into law on June 28, 1968, kept the name Washington's Birthday.
By the mid-1980s, with a push from advertisers, the term "Presidents' Day" began its public appearance. Although Lincoln's birthday, February 12, was never a federal holiday, approximately a dozen state governments have officially renamed their Washington's Birthday observances as "Presidents' Day", "Washington and Lincoln Day", or other such designations. However, "Presidents' Day" is not always an all-inclusive term.
Today, the February holiday has become well known for being a day in which many stores, especially car dealers, hold sales. Until the late 1980s, corporate businesses generally closed on this day, similar to present corporate practices on Memorial Day or Christmas Day. With the late 1980s advertising push to rename the holiday, more and more businesses are staying open on the holiday each year, and, as on Veterans Day and Columbus Day, most delivery services outside of the U.S. Postal Service now offer regular service on the day as well. Some public transit systems have also gone to regular schedules on the day. Many colleges and universities hold regular classes and operations on Presidents Day. Various theories exist for this, one accepted reason being to make up for the growing trend of corporations to close in observance of the Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. However, when reviewing the Uniform Monday Holiday Bill debate of 1968 in the Congressional Record, one notes that supporters of the Bill were intent on moving federal holidays to Mondays to promote business.
So what we have today is a holiday where the biggest event is the mattress and furniture sales we see and hear advertised on the TV and radio. Nothing much is said about George Washington, the true father of our country — not Barak Obama as proclaimed by Chris Rock.
Much is said about Abraham Lincoln, especially since Bill O’Reilly’s book “Killing Lincoln” became a best seller. Last night I watched the National Geographic Channel’s 2 hour movie (minus 25 minutes for commercials). If you have not read O’Reilly’s book I recommend the film — if you have read the book don’t waste your time. The film is a docudrama narrated by Tom Hanks that glosses over the salient points of the book. It is well acted, especially the character of John Wilkes Booth, and provided the NatGeo channel with its highest ever ratings.
Today not much is known about George Washington except school children are told the tale of his confessing to chopping down the cherry tree in his father’s yard. While this tale in unconfirmed it does tell of Washington’s honor and truthfulness.
However, as the Washington Examiner notes, we don’t dedicate this day to Washington because he is the greatest U.S. general (he isn’t) or even the greatest president (the case can certainly be made for others). No, though Washington’s performance in both categories is deserving of high praise, we honor him for the precedent and example he set.
“He held the proverbial ring of power, and he gave it up of his own accord,” the Washington Examiner notes.
“Washington’s selflessness separates him from lesser men who won much greater military victories but were vanquished by the temptation of power — Julius Caesar before him and Napoleon Bonaparte afterward.”
He refused this power because he believed in the cause of the republic.
Understanding the pitfalls of organized government, Washington in his 1796 farewell address to Congress urged U.S. lawmakers to guard against unnecessary wars and racking up unsustainable public debt, among other things.
Considering the fact that the nation’s capital has in recent years become a spectacle more deserving of mockery than praise, perhaps it’s worth revisiting some of his warnings to Congress.
On The Constitution:
“This government, the offspring of our own choice uninfluenced and unawed, adopted upon full investigation and mature deliberation, completely free in its principles, in the distribution of its powers, uniting security with energy, and containing within itself a provision for its own amendment, has a just claim to your confidence and your support. Respect for its authority, compliance with its Laws, acquiescence in its measures, are duties enjoined by the fundamental maxims of true Liberty. The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their Constitutions of Government. But the constitution which at any time exists, ’till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole People, is sacredly obligatory upon all. The very idea of the power and the right of the People to establish Government presupposes the duty of every Individual to obey the established Government.”
On ‘Progressive’ Ideas:
“Towards the preservation of your Government and the permanency of your present happy state, it is requisite, not only that you steadily discountenance irregular oppositions to its acknowledged authority, but also that you resist with care the spirit of innovation upon its principles, however specious the pretexts. One method of assault may be to effect, in the forms of the Constitution, alterations which will impair the energy of the system, and thus to undermine what cannot be directly overthrown. In all the changes to which you may be invited, remember that time and habit are at least as necessary to fix the true character of Governments, as of other human institutions; that experience is the surest standard by which to test the real tendency of the existing Constitution of a country; that facility in changes upon the credit of mere hypotheses and opinion exposes to perpetual change, from the endless variety of hypotheses and opinion: and remember, especially, that for the efficient management of your common interests, in a country so extensive as ours, a Government of as much vigour as is consistent with the perfect security of Liberty is indispensable. Liberty itself will find in such a Government, with powers properly distributed and adjusted, its surest Guardian. It is indeed little else than a name, where the Government is too feeble to withstand the enterprises of faction, to confine each member of the Society within the limits prescribed by the laws and to maintain all in the secure and tranquil enjoyment of the rights of person and property.”
On Political Parties:
“I have already intimated to you the danger of Parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on Geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the Spirit of Party, generally.
This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human Mind. It exists under different shapes in all Governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form it is seen in its greatest rankness and is truly their worst enemy.
The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissention, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an Individual: and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.
Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight) the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of Party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise People to discourage and restrain it.
It serves always to distract the Public Councils and enfeeble the Public administration. It agitates the Community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another; foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.”
(Editor’s note: If this isn’t a warning against class warfare nothing is)
“Observe good faith and justice towards all Nations. Cultivate peace and harmony with all. Religion and morality enjoin this conduct; and can it be that good policy does not equally enjoin it? It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and, at no distant period, a great Nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a People always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence. Who can doubt that in the course of time and things the fruits of such a plan would richly repay any temporary advantages which. might be lost by a steady adherence to it? Can it be, that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity of a Nation with its virtue? The experiment, at least, is recommended by every sentiment which ennobles human Nature.
Alas! is it rendered impossible by its vices?
In the execution of such a plan nothing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular Nations and passionate attachments for others should be excluded; and that in place of them just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated. The Nation, which indulges towards another an habitual hatred, or an habitual fondness, is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest. Antipathy in one Nation against another, disposes each more readily to offer insult and injury, to lay hold of slight causes of umbrage, and to be haughty and intractable, when accidental or trifling occasions of dispute occur. Hence frequent collisions, obstinate envenomed, and bloody contests. The Nation, prompted by ill will and resentment sometimes impels to War the Government, contrary to the best calculations of policy. The government sometimes participates in the national propensity, and adopts through passion what reason would reject; at other times, it makes the animosity of the Nation subservient to projects of hostility instigated by pride, ambition and other sinister and pernicious motives. The peace often, sometimes perhaps the Liberty, of Nations has been the victim.
On Public Debt:
“As a very important source of strength and security, cherish public credit. One method of preserving it is to use it as sparingly as possible: avoiding occasions of expense by cultivating peace, but remembering also that timely disbursements to prepare for danger frequently prevent much greater disbursements to repel it; avoiding likewise the accumulation of debt, not only by shunning occasions of expense, but by vigorous exertions in time of Peace to discharge the Debts which unavoidable wars may have occasioned, not ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burthen which we ourselves ought to bear. The execution of these maxims belongs to your Representatives; but it is necessary that public opinion should cooperate. To facilitate to them the performance of their duty it is essential that you should practically bear in mind, that towards the payment of debts there must be Revenue; that to have Revenue there must be taxes; that no taxes can be devised which are not more or less inconvenient and unpleasant; that the intrinsic embarrassment inseparable from the selection of the proper objects (which is always a choice of difficulties) ought to be a decisive motive for a candid construction of the Conduct of the Government in making it, and for a spirit of acquiescence in the measures for obtaining Revenue which the public exigencies may at any time dictate.”
Today’s celebration of George Washington stands as a mockery of presidents who start wars unilaterally. It is a rebuke to presidents who falsely believe their own agenda so important that it cannot wait for the processes set forth in the Constitution.
This is why “Presidents’ Day” should instead be referred to by its proper name – “Washington’s Birthday.” Today is not about the presidency, whose modern glorification would have horrified Washington. It is, rather, a celebration of the kind of selfless restraint that is so rarely exercised in that office.