Warren: What Presidents’ Day should be about
You may have noticed today that we “celebrated” Presidents’ Day — not because of brilliant and enthusiastic educational, social and cultural commemorations that you participated in — but because the newspaper and TV was riddled with Presidents’ Day advertisements for furniture, cars and department stores.
We were supposed to celebrate with great vigor the accomplishments of all of our presidents, like Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Warren Harding and Benjamin Harrison.
The holiday was intended to commemorate the singular, historic accomplishments of George Washington. Feb. 22 (not the third Monday of February) is Washington’s true birthday. After he was given to the ages, the country began to celebrate his birthday as an unofficial holiday. In 1879, Feb. 22 became an official federal holiday.
That Washington should receive special recognition was once a self-evident truth. He played a leading role in the skirmish that set off the French and Indian War. That war led to enormous debt for the British Empire, which led the British imposing taxation without representation. The British policy was a leading spark to the American Revolution. Washington then led the Continental Army against the British. Through a series of amazing logistical and strategic actions, he wore down the finest military on the planet and gained independence for America. In a masterstroke, he retired from public service. Anxious to return home to Mt. Vernon, and he allowed the seed of freedom to sprout.
Several years later, he was called back to service to preside over the Constitutional Convention. His presence was indispensable to its success and the ratification of the Constitution. Not content to let Washington leave the field again, he was the only person unanimously elected (twice) as president. As the first president, he created many of the traditions, and initiated many polices, that dominate even today. He refused the major trappings of royalty, and understood his role as a president of a republic. After his second term, he voluntarily retired. This act of relinquishing power was unparalleled in modern history. His nemesis — King George III — then declared him the “greatest character of the age.” For once, the king was right.
There was a time when Washington’s accomplishments were recognized each year. Now we are lucky if we learn about them in third grade or high school. Although there are many reasons for this denigration, it was all but assured by the ruining of his holiday. Prodded by commercial and labor interests, President Richard Nixon issued an executive order setting Washington’s birthday on the third Monday on February. Soon businesses and the popular culture transformed the day to “Presidents’ Day.” Technically the federal holiday remains Washington’s — but practically it celebrates nothing.
The gutting of the holiday has consequences. Like a religious liturgical calendar, which renews the faith of followers, America needs a civic calendar. This calendar should make us pause in the hustle and bustle of the day to give thanks and remembrance for our blessings. We still have the calendar (Presidents’ Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, Veterans’ Day), but it has become so cheapened by money and three-day weekends that it is worthless.
In his first Inaugural Address, Washington explained that “the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered, perhaps, as deeply, as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.” As the heirs of that experiment, we must maintain that sacred fire of liberty. Accordingly, we should discard the pretense of Presidents’ Day and renew Washington’s Birthday.
Washington’s importance is why he holds a prominent position in Patriot Week, co-founded by me and my then 10-year-old daughter Leah. Patriot Week is renewing our civic calendar by celebrating the First Principles, Founding Fathers and other patriots, vital documents and speeches, and flags that make America the greatest nation in world history. Anchored by the key dates of Sept. 11 and Sept. 17 (Constitution Day), Patriot Week renews America’s spirit and has captures the imagination and support of citizens across the nation.
Let us answer the challenge of freedom by vigorously celebrating Washington’s Birthday and Patriot Week.