Today is Presidents’ Day. Why? In a system of shared powers with checks and balances why do we set aside a day to honor our chief executives? Where is Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Day or Speaker of the House Day? We, of course, don’t have those days because that would be ridiculous. But we have Presidents’ Day because John Tyler, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Herbert Hoover, and Jimmy Carter all did so well in office, right? Well, it didn’t use to be this way and we really should bring this day back to its origins.
Officially the government still lists Presidents’ Day as Washington’s Birthday, because that was what this holiday used to be about. Started in 1885, Washington’s Birthday was celebrated on Washington’s birthday, February 22. The national holiday was designed just for him. It was a day for our most revered Founding Father, a day for our nation’s most respected General, a day for a great American. This did not need to change, but two things happened that left us with our current mashed holiday.
The first factor to contribute to the change was Abe Lincoln, who, like George Washington, has a February birthday. Lincoln’s time in office had passed by 1885, but his greatness was not yet appreciated during Reconstruction like it is today. This wait led quite well into the second factor; the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. In 1971 Congress passed this in an effort to create more three day weekends. This shifted the recognition of Washington’s birthday from the actual birthday to the third Monday in February. With the greatness of Lincoln secured by 1971 it was commonplace for Washington’s Birthday to also incorporate Lincoln’s February birthday. From there it snowballed and now we are left with a day that is supposed to recognize all our presidents, stars and duds.
Mashing all the presidents together for a holiday is unfortunate because it diminishes the greatness of Washington, who was so much more to this country than just a president. He was our first great General, our standard of statesmanship, an object of admiration for his contemporaries and generations who followed, and today is still popularly considered as an American icon. He surveyed Virginia, he crossed the Delaware, he led the Constitutional Convention and then campaigned for The Constitution’s ratification, just to name a few things. Too bad he now shares this day with Tyler, Pierce and other lackluster presidents.
Just having a day to honor the presidents is counter-intuitive to democracy. We have three equal branches of government. The executive branch should not receive more recognition than the legislative and judicial branches. Presidents are partisans. This day was not originally created to honor just Washington’s presidency; it was to honor the entirety of his contribution to our nation. He deserves better than sharing a sentence, much less a day, with nearly half of the hacks we have put in the White House. So happy birthday Mr. Washington, sorry this happened.