Politics & Policy

By George

It's not Presidents' Day. It's Washington's birthday.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article first appeared on NRO on Feb 17, 2003.

Can you name the holiday

that falls on the third Monday in February? Like most Americans, you probably

think its “Presidents’ Day.” Every desk calendar and car sale ad seems to confirm

it. So it may surprise you to learn that its legal name is still “Washington’s

Birthday.” The law establishing the holiday has never been changed.

For

all practical purposes, of course, his day has been forfeited to convenience.

We celebrate it on the third Monday in February rather than on the actual day

(Feb. 22), and we call it “Presidents’ Day” so we can lump it in with Abraham

Lincoln’s birthday (Feb. 12) and pay tribute to all presidents — good,

bad and mediocre.

Two members of Congress,

Reps. Roscoe Bartlett (R., Md.), and Tom Tancredo (R.,Colo.), have had enough

of this convenience. They’ve introduced legislation that would direct all federal

agencies to refer to the holiday as “George Washington’s Birthday” and return

Washington to his rightful place above all other presidents.

That’s a step in the right

direction. A better step would be for President Bush to issue an executive order

that not only would enforce current law, but remind Americans that Washington

still deserves to be “first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

If anyone in American

history deserves to have a day celebrated in his honor, it’s Washington. He

led the army that won independence from the British, refused to become the king

of his new land, led the Constitutional Convention that gave us the world’s

pre-eminent government, then served as the first president. And his departure

from office marked one of the first peaceful transfers of power in world history.

Washington biographer

James

Flexner called him the “indispensable man” of the American founding. In

his roles as the head of the Constitutional Convention and as our first president,

he 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.

Through force of character

and skillful 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 mightiest military power in the world. After that,

Washington resigned his commission and returned to his beloved Mount Vernon.

His participation in the

Constitutional Convention gave the resulting document a credibility it otherwise

would have lacked. Unanimously elected president of the convention, he worked

actively to support a strong executive and defined national powers. The vast

powers of the presidency, one delegate 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.”

In Washington’s extensive

writings about the principles and purposes of the American founding, he championed

religious freedom, immigration and the rule of law. His greatest legacy is his

Farewell Address, which ranks with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution

among the great documents of the founding.

Washington called the

Constitution our strongest check against tyranny and the best bulwark of our

freedom. He warned us to guard against oppositions to lawful authority and those

that seek to circumvent the rule of law. He also warned against the politics

of passion. Partisan spirit finds its roots in human nature, he said, but it

should not dominate politics to the exclusion of deliberation, persuasion and

reason.

Although remembered by

some as an isolationist, Washington recommended that America build political,

economic and physical strength sufficient to defy external threats and pursue

its own long-term national purpose. He urged that liberty — not conquest

— be the objective of our international relations and commerce, and be

America’s primary means for acquiring goods and dealing with the world.

No one did more to put

America on the path to success than Washington. No one did more to assure a

government with sufficient power to function but sufficient limits to allow

freedom to flourish. No one walked away from power with more dignity, conducted

himself with more grace or did more to assure the prosperous society we enjoy

today.

Which is why no one deserves

to have a holiday that bears his own name more than George Washington.

Matthew Spalding is director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American

Studies at the Heritage Foundation. He

is editor of The

Founders’ Almanac.

Matthew Spalding is the associate vice president and dean of educational programs for Hillsdale College in Washington, D.C., where he is the Allan P. Kirby Jr. Chair in Constitutional Studies.

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