Restore Washington's Birthday
September 20, 1999
by John Fonte
September 19, 1999 is the 203rd anniversary of George Washington's Farewell Address. It is time that Americans reflect upon his legacy. The first order of business should be to launch a national campaign to restore and celebrate his birthday this coming February 2000. It will be 200 years after his death and would serve as a fitting beginning to what we hope will be another century of American freedom.
Unfortunately, George Washington's birthday in February 1999 passed with little fanfare. For the most part, the birthday of the man who was once revered as the "Father of our country" was 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 as the birthday of George Washington. 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 Washington's birthday 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 3-day weekend for some reason. This will come."
On the contrary, the bill's supporters argued that changing the date would not diminish the time-honored commemoration of Washington's birthday. One Congressmen declared a Monday holiday would enhance the celebration by permitting more people to visit Mount Vernon.
Moreover, the bill's supporters argued that the February holiday was meant to honor Washington alone. They specifically rejected an amendment to change the name of the holiday to "President's Day" because, as 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 (cosponsored 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 are supposed to celebrate Washington's Birthday, not President's Day.
Nevertheless, although we have not officially abandoned Washington's Birthday for President's Day, we act as though we have. On Monday, February 15, 1999 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 senator, marching in the annual parade in honor of Washington's birthday in our first President's hometown greeted the assembled spectators with the words "Happy President's Day."
One of the more persuasive arguments for the change is that the other great President born in February, Abraham Lincoln, should be honored this month as well. And so he should. But a generic 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 our nation are greater than those of Millard Fillmore and James Buchanan. 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, a constitutional democratic republic, 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 chief executive office of the American democratic republic: (4) voluntarily giving up power both as a military commander and a political leader thereby discrediting, in advance, any potential Caesar or Napoleon in American politics; and (5) most importantly, providing by character and example, a model of republican citizenship.
Sometimes more wisdom is found among the losers of congressional debates than among the winners. In opposing the legislation to change the February 22 date of Washington's birthday in 1968, 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 two hundredth 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.