We are once again celebrating the nation’s most nondescript holiday. Its legal name remains “Washington’s Birthday.” You would not know that from the ads hawking cars and linen, and from public responses to surveys asking which American president was the greatest. (In a recent Gallup poll, Kennedy, Clinton, and Reagan all placed ahead of Washington in the “hearts of their countrymen.”)
The shift in the public mind over whom we are honoring on this holiday, like so many other bad ideas, originated in the Nixon administration. The year before he took office, Congress decreed that the February holiday, along with several others, be observed on a Monday. The idea was to give their constituents several three-day weekends. Until then, February 22 (traditionally Washington’s Birthday), like July 4 (Independence Day), and November 11 (Veterans Day, originally “Armistice Day”) was a date Americans had revered.
When Congress finally got around to declaring Washington’s birthday a national holiday, at the end of the nineteenth century, it was following a local custom that began in 1777, when soldiers in the Continental Army began celebrating the birthday of their head general. Cities and towns held pageants and parades. Children competed in essay contests in which they considered Washington’s place in history, what they might learn from his example, and how he might handle problems in their day. The Commission that marked the bicentennial of Washington’s birthday took on, as one of its projects, distributing reproductions of Gilbert Stuart’s famous (“dollar bill”) portrait to schoolrooms all across the country.
Nixon, perhaps inadvertently, helped put an end to all this when, in 1971, he signed a proclamation in which he urged all Americans to honor, on the third Monday of February, all who had served as president. Unlike the “New Economic Policy,” and the purported plans to firebomb the Brookings Institution, this was one harebrained idea that survived its promulgator. The coalescing of two other bad ideas, political correctness and moral equivalency, breathed new life into it.
Political correctness decreed that history should be studied “from the bottom up.” Undertaken with the purported aim of recording contributions of Americans who had conventionally been “left out” of history books, it too often resulted in the ordinary pushing out of — or at least the trimming of space awarded to — the “greats.” History, we were told, was more than the study of dead white men, generals, and presidents. As a dead white male, who had been both a president and a general, Washington had three strikes working against him.
The slide into moral equivalence took its toll on Washington in different ways. With even an incumbent president of the United States unclear in his own mind as to whether there is such a thing as “American Exceptionalism”; too few students, and even members of Congress, familiar with the words and meaning of the U.S. Constitution; and leaders of so many sectors of society — education, business, entertainment, and even clergy — unwilling to declare fealty to universal truths, it is no wonder that hosannas to Washington have become fewer in number. He had after all warned his fellow citizens that only a moral people could remain a free people and that Providence was the source of all morality.
Pretending that all presidents were, in fact, equal proved a convenient way for those unwilling or unable to draw moral distinctions to retain the holiday, while depriving it of meaning. The term “Presidents Day” had a leveling effect. Rather than focus on what made Washington, in the language of Barack Obama, a “transformative” figure in world events, it lumped him together with the many mediocrities that came after him. In The American Commonwealth, published in 1888, Lord Bryce informed his readers that the odds against great men becoming president were long. Of the few who made it, Washington was, it can be forcefully argued, the greatest.
Leaders who take the time to study Washington will find much more to make them uncomfortable than his admonition to leaders and led to be virtuous. In both his public and private lives, he proved masterful in creating wealth and using it sparingly. In his “Farewell Address,” Washington urged that his readers “cherish public credit” and avoid accumulation of debt. He noted that the latter would eventually have to be paid with revenues, raised through taxes, and that their collection entailed resorting to methods that were inconvenient and unpleasant. (Washington had seen his share of “tea parties.”)
It is long past time the nation he founded got right with Washington. He still has much to teach us. We can start by referring to the holiday by its proper name and using it as the occasion to relearn lessons long forgotten. George Washington can still be of service to his country. Not bad for someone born 279 years ago. Happy “Washington’s Birthday.”
— Alvin S. Felzenberg is the author of The Leaders We Deserved (and a Few We Didn’t): Rethinking the Presidential Rating Game.