George Washington's Birthday Yes, President's Day
March 18, 1999
by John Fonte
George Washington's Birthday 1999 (almost 200 years after his death in December 1799) has come and gone with little fanfare. For the most part, the birthday of the man who was once revered as the "Father of our country" has been subsumed under an amorphous "President's Day." How did this come to pass and is there anything we should do about it?
February 22 was once celebrated throughout the land as the birthday of George Washington. But all of this changed with the passage of the Monday holiday law in 1968. During the debate over that legislation, Tennessee Congressman Dan Kuykendall argued prophetically that: "If we do this [change the date of the Washington holiday celebration], ten years from now our school children will not know what February 22 means. They will not know or care when George Washington was born. They will know that in the middle of February they will have a three-day weekend for some reason. This will come."
However, the bill's supporters argued that, on the contrary, changing the date would in no way diminish the time-honored commemoration of Washington's birthday. The bill's chief sponsor, Representative Robert McClory of Illinois suggested that a Monday holiday would actually enhance the celebration by permitting more people to visit historical sites such as Mount Vernon.
But most importantly, the bill's supporters argued that the February holiday was meant to honor Washington alone. They specifically rejected an amendment in the judiciary committee to change the name of the holiday to "President's Day" because, as the ranking minority member Congressman William McCulloch put it, "not all Presidents are held in the same high esteem as the Father of our Country." And last year, thirty years after the passage of the original bill, Congress, once again, refused to pass legislation (co-sponsored by 12 senators) that would have "redesignate[d] the legal public holiday 'Washington's Birthday' as 'President's Day.'" So by law, in mid-February, we celebrated Washington's Birthday, not President's Day.
Nevertheless, although we have not officially abandoned Washington's Birthday or President's Day, we act as though we have. On the federal holiday of Monday, February 15, one heard and read the term "President's Day," not simply from local merchants and television weather anchors, but from federal government agencies and United States Senators.
One of the more persuasive arguments for the change is that the other great President born in February, Abraham Lincoln, should be honored during the month as well. And so he should. But a generalized President's day does not do this. We do not call the February holiday "Washington-Lincoln Day," but "President's Day." Lincoln, who consciously modeled himself on Washington, and who more than any other American helped to preserve and perpetuate Washington's legacy of constitutional democratic government, should have his own day, February 12. Last year's bill essentially proposed a generic holiday. It refers to "the contributions that Presidents have made to the development of our nation" and "to the institution of the Presidency."
The issue is clear: the February holiday is either Washington's Birthday or President's Day. Surely, Americans are capable of deciding that the contributions of George Washington to "the development of our nation" are greater than the contributions of Millard Fillmore and James Buchanan. Washington scholar James Flexner has called our first President the "indispensable" man: the one individual most responsible for the successful launching of the American experiment - a new form of government, never before realized in human history in which the people are sovereign, but their power is limited by a written constitution.
Washington became the "indispensable man" by:
(1) holding the ragtag Continental army together for eight years until the British decided that continuing the war was not worth the price;
(2) presiding over the Constitutional Convention that created the world's oldest written constitution;
(3) serving as our first President and , thus, establishing by example both the limits and prerogatives of the office;
(4) voluntarily giving up power both as a military commander and a political leader thereby discrediting, in advance, any potential Caesar or Napolean in American politics; and;
(5) most importantly, by character and example, a model of republican citizenship.
Sometimes more wisdom is found among the losers of congressional debates than among the winners. Thirty-one years ago in opposing the legislation to change the February 22 date of Washington's birthday, Congressman Joe Waggonner of Louisiana told the bill's sponsors: "you have further commercialized and made further meaningless something that has the respect of the people of this country." Surely, it is time, on the 200th anniversary of George Washington's death, to bury President's Day and to resurrect and celebrate the birthday of the Father of our country.
John Fonte is a Senior Fellow and Director of Hudson's Center for American Common Culture.