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Paul Greenberg / February 22, 2009

The Lost Holiday: Quick, Whose Birthday Is This?

Despite the outward signs last Monday, there’s actually no such holiday as President’s Day to be found in the federal statutes. Or should that be Presidents’ Day? Or just plain old, apostrophe-less Presidents Day? Like its legal standing, even the name of the holiday is uncertain.

Unmoored from the past, like a Presidents’ Day connected to no particular president, holidays lose their meaning. Honor all presidents and you honor none; pretend all presidents are equal and they all fade into an equal obscurity.

It would be a harmless practice, designating the third Monday in February as an all-purpose, all-presidents holiday, if it didn’t obscure what used to be two real holidays and the real significance of our greatest presidents – Washington and Lincoln. If we lose touch with them, we lose touch with how we came to be, and stayed, a nation. We lose touch with what we are. For without them, America wouldn’t be America.

Today, February 22, is not President’s/Presidents’/Presidents Day, but Washington’s birthday, at least according to the Gregorian calendar we now use. He was actually born February 11, 1731 Old Style. That is, according to the calendar then in use in this part of the world. That was before the colonies skipped 11 days to make the switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, and young Washington obligingly moved his birthday to the 22nd. That date would become widely celebrated even in his own lifetime by a grateful nation.

But over the years General and President Washington faded from real-life hero into icon. His was the face on the dollar bill, his the portrait that used to hang in every American classroom. Like those pictures, he became just part of the background.

In the story once told to every American schoolchild, George Washington was the little boy who chopped down the cherry tree and wouldn’t tell a lie. That tall tale was invented by his biographer and mythmaker, Parson Weems, but the parson’s stories can’t begin to compete with the saga of Washington’s real, improbable life:

An awkward, rawboned countryman teaches himself to be a gentleman by laboriously copying “The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation,” and makes every one of them his own. For life. Those rules become not only his practice but his self.

A rash young soldier learns from a disastrous defeat at the hands of the French and Indians. He goes on to many another defeat before somehow emerging with a world-changing victory. It would become a pattern: As a military commander, Washington had a way of losing almost every battle but the last.

At the great, wrenching moment of decision in his time, this prosperous, ambitious Virginia planter risks everything he has–life, fortune, sacred honor–when he chooses to join the patriot cause.

A general without an army, he proceeds to raise one, and goes on to defeat the mightiest empire on the face of the earth. No wonder the band played “The World Turned Upside Down” at Yorktown.

The one thing that disorganizes more than defeat is victory. After eight long years of war (1775-83), and all the turmoil, sacrifice, divisions and confusions that go with war, the new country somehow emerged victorious. Also deeply in debt, adrift and desperate for strong, stable government. The sophisticates of Europe waited to see how long this notion of a people governing themselves could possibly last.

There used to be a name for the painful, uncertain pause in American history between the Revolution and the Constitution. It was called the Critical Period before revisionist historians got their hands on it. And it was well named, for one crisis followed another.

At one point an army demanding to be paid urged its commanding general to disband the incompetent, demoralized and widely despised Congress, and take control of the country himself. Instead, Washington resigned his commission and returned to Mount Vernon.

It would not be the first time this Cincinnatus turned his back on power and returned to his fields. Victorious generals have been known to seize power; this one could hardly wait to let it go. How antique.

As the woefully weak government under the old Articles of Confederation proved inadequate to deal with one challenge after another, the aging general would look on with growing concern as the nascent Union foundered. British troops refused to leave frontier forts, the national currency grew worthless, the economy faltered, trade was paralyzed, and the new government, largely paralyzed because it required the unanimous consent of all the states to act, seemed powerless to reverse the sad trend. Mobs marched and a rebellion flared in Massachusetts.

This leader who had surrendered the stage to others didn’t just sit back and watch the dissolution of his country. To form a new, more perfect Union, he convened a meeting of the best minds and the most sagacious statesmen of his generation. As he told the delegates at the outset of their deliberations: “Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair.” They did.

The result of their labors would be what a British statesman of some note, William Ewart Gladstone, would call “the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man” – the Constitution of the United States. Washington would preside over its birth. His presence at the head of the constitutional convention of 1787 gave it a moral authority no one else could have supplied.

Once again Washington had led us to independence – to liberty and order. Ending the murk of President’s Day and celebrating this day as Washington’s Birthday would pay due homage to the man who pursued, and achieved, both for his country.

At the heart of this new Constitution there was envisioned a singular office: president of the United States. There can be no doubt about the provenance of a strong, unitary American presidency. It was modeled after, inspired by, and designed for just one man: George Washington. It is an institution created in his image.

The first president of the United States would appoint a cabinet that contained two of the most brilliant, mercurial and completely opposed statesmen ever to serve together: Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.

Surely only a Washington could have kept them pulling in the same direction. Avoiding the impetuosity of both, this wartime hero managed to keep the peace with the two greatest, and warring, powers of his day, Great Britain and France – no mean feat. The old general could be a brilliant statesman himself.

And when it came time to lay down the burdens of office, and at last be granted the return to private life so long denied him, Washington’s farewell address would be his final gift to the nation he had molded.

First in war, first in peace, Washington is no longer first in the hearts of his countrymen on President’s/ Presidents’/ Presidents Day. For the first president now has been merged with all the others in order to fabricate a generic new American holiday. This remodeled holiday is no longer just about Washington, or even Washington and Lincoln. With the introduction of President’s Day, they’ve been reduced to just two more faces in the crowd.

It’s not easy to trace how President’s Day supplanted Washington’s Birthday. Some attribute the whole, annoying innovation to Richard Nixon. (Why are we not surprised?) What we have here is another triumph of bland, indistinct, impersonal, egalitarian “diversity” over the individual hero – this time among presidents. What a sad loss. For we need all the heroes we can hold onto.

But this loss – in taste, in perception, in judgment – need not be permanent. It is not irreversible even if it feels that way. A renaissance may begin with a single gesture. Like forgetting President’s Day, and celebrating the real thing: Washington’s Birthday.


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