What in the bloody hell are we celebrating on Presidents’ Day? And why? Does anyone know?
Nothing. The answer is: Nothing.
Americans used to celebrate George Washington on February 22 of every year. Following the first president’s death in 1799, the nation honored his memory with parades, parties, and various festivities.
In 1879 Congress and President Rutherford B. Hayes established Washington’s Birthday as an official federal holiday.
This was appropriate considering that the United States may very well never have existed if not for George Washington, at least, not long enough to avoid being snuffed out by the British shortly after declaring independence.
But nearly a century after Hayes signed Washington’s Birthday into law, Lyndon Johnson and the 90th Congress killed our Founding Father, the hero of American heroes.
On June 28, 1968, the heavily Democratic Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which went into effect on January 1, 1971. It ensured that Washington's Birthday would never again be on Washington's birthday.
This act made Columbus Day a federal holiday, and moved four existing federal holidays to Mondays: Memorial Day, Labor Day, Veterans Day*, and Washington’s Birthday, the name of which is still officially Washington’s Birthday, although it has been known colloquially as Presidents’ Day for decades.
The idea behind H.R. 15951 was that Democrats don’t like work, three-day weekends are the cat’s meow, and since most of what the government does is unnecessary, anyway, no one would notice if it shut down for half a week.
And in the spirit of asininity being bipartisan, Rep. Robert McClory, a Republican from Illinois, the “Land of Lincoln,” shepherded the bill through the House Judiciary Committee. He also tried and failed to officially rename Washington’s Birthday, “Presidents’ Day.” Virginia’s representatives wouldn’t have it.
So, the last Monday in May is Memorial Day, the first Monday in September is Labor Day, the second Monday in October is Columbus Day, and the third Monday in February is Washington’s Birthday, which means it can fall anywhere from February 15 to February 21. Those dates, conveniently for McClory, fall in between the birthdays of Washington and Abraham Lincoln (February 12), a major reason for Americans' confusion about who and what Presidents' Day is honoring.
This would all be fine if George Washington weren’t born on one day in 1732 — not a range of seven days. And definitely not a range of seven days that doesn’t include his actual birthday, February 22.
What a joke.
Because, unlike Memorial Day or Labor Day or Columbus Day, there is only one date that gives Washington’s Birthday any meaning . . . the day he was born!
Divorce the birthday from the holiday, and you get a forgotten man and a holiday honoring 20% off TV stands at Crate & Barrel.
Speaking of which, these days we know Washington’s Birthday as Presidents’ Day thanks mostly to advertisers, who saw they could boost sales with three-day deals that honor the memories, or something, of Washington and Lincoln.
Many state governments also officially renamed Washington’s Birthday as Presidents’ Day, or President’s Day, or Presidents Day, or Washington and Lincoln Day, or Birthdays of George Washington/Thomas Jefferson, or some other nonsense.
So, leave it to Congress to place in George Washington’s stead a day with less meaning than even the half-birthday. A day that honors equal parts Abraham Lincoln and James Buchanan, John Adams and Jimmy Carter, George Bush and George Washington. In other words, a very dumb day.
The price of Congress’s stupidity is national amnesia.
Most Americans older than, say, 55, know Washington’s birthday. And they know about Washington the man only because they honored his birthday every year when they were growing up.
National rituals like Thanksgiving and Memorial Day and, in the past, Washington’s Birthday, exist in order to educate Americans about the ideas that define America.
Ours is not a tribal or ethnic or racial nation, like every other. America is the only nation founded on an idea: the idea that God created man to be free, and that our freedom is best achieved through a limited government and a religious populace.
That idea is the only thing that meaningfully binds Americans together. Our national days of honor and remembrance honor that idea. They refresh our memories of what it means to be American.
That’s why it actually does matter when Thanksgiving is nothing more than football and turkey, or when Memorial Day is about doorbuster deals, or when Presidents’ Day is about nothing.
Because just as a person who loses his memory has died, in a sense, so has a nation that has forgotten its past.
During the debate on H.R. 15951, Rep. Dan Heflin Kuykendall, a Republican from Tennessee, presciently said, “If we do this, 10 years from now our schoolchildren will not know or care when George Washington was born. They will know that in the middle of February they will have a three-day weekend for some reason. This will come.”
How right he was.
*To quell public outcry, in 1978 Veterans Day was returned to its proper date of observance on November 11, Armistice Day, the date World War I ended.
Article originally published February 16, 2018.