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.
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.
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
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
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
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