We celebrated “Presidents Day” on Monday, February 18, but many Americans do not realize that the day is legally and officially known as “Washington’s Birthday.” The celebration of Washington’s birthday was moved from his real birthday on February 22 to the third Monday in February. In the “olden days” as I was growing up, we celebrated Lincoln’s birthday on February 12 and then celebrated Washington’s birthday on February 22. One day someone had the brainy (?) idea to lump the two holidays together on the third Monday in February – occurring right between the two birthdays, and the unified celebration became commonly known as “Presidents Day.” For many years I truly believed that the name of the holiday had been changed to “Presidents Day” and have learned differently only in recent years. I could never understand why we were given only one day to honor Washington, Lincoln, and other great Presidents when Martin Luther King, Jr. was given a holiday all to himself. Now I know that both President Washington and King have their own day to be honored.
I understand that the federal holiday officially known as “Washington’s Birthday” was moved to a Monday in order to accommodate the ski associations who desired a three-day weekend in February. I believe we should officially and unofficially refer to the day as “Washington’s Birthday.” Apparently, other people think so too!
In an opinion editorial entitled “Why `President’s Day’ properly belongs to George Washington,” the Washington Examiner stated, “Although popularly known as `Presidents Day,’ February 18 this year is officially the federal celebration of `Washington’s Birthday.’ George Washington, the father of this nation, deserves the recognition that the more popular name fails to convey.
“Washington is remembered for his military service in the American Revolution and as the nation’s first president. But neither of these is the chief reason he is honored today. There have been greater military leaders than Washington and arguably greater presidents as well. But Washington’s greatest achievement was beyond the emotional scope of most great military and political leaders: He held the proverbial ring of power, and he gave it up of his own accord.
“At the end of the Revolutionary War, when the possibility of absolute power presented itself to Washington, he humbly stepped aside. He resigned his command of the Continental Army, restoring full power to a civilian Congress that had in fact caused him great grief throughout the course of the war he had successfully prosecuted. This event is commemorated in one of the most famous murals in the Capitol Building. Washington’s selflessness separates him from lesser men who won much greater military victories but were vanquished by the temptation of power – Julius Caesar before him and Napoleon Bonaparte afterward.
“Had Washington followed the governing philosophy that reigns in the capital today - `never waste a crisis’ – then there would probably be no Constitution and no United States of America.”
The editorial continues by explaining that it was Washington’s “example for future generations of Americans, firmly establishing civilian control of the nation’s military” that warrants our honoring him.
The Heritage Foundation agrees that we are failing to honor President Washington as we should. A statement in an article entitled “George Washington’s Example on Religious Liberty” includes the following quote: “Instead of celebrating George Washington’s birthday, today we’ve lumped him in together with no-names including Millard Fillmore and William Henry Harrison as we celebrate a generic `Presidents Day.
“But George Washington was not simply a President. He was the indispensable man of the American Founding. Washington’s words, thoughts, and deeds as a military commander, a President, and a patriotic leader make him arguably the greatest statesman in our history.
“All Presidents can learn from Washington’s leadership in foreign policy, in upholding the rule of law, and `especially now’ in the importance of religion and religious liberty….
“Washington knew that religion and morality are essential to creating the conditions for decent politics. `Where,’ Washington asked, `is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice?’
“Religion and morality are, Washington wrote, essential to the happiness of mankind: `A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity.’ To match his high praise of religion, Washington had a robust understanding of religious liberty. Freedom allows religion, in the form of morality and through the teachings of religion, to exercise an unprecedented influence over private and public opinion. Religious liberty shapes mores, cultivates virtues, and provides an independent source of moral reasoning and authority. In his letter to the Newport Hebrew congregation – at the time the largest community of Jewish families in America – President Washington grounded America’s religious and civil liberties in natural rights, and not mere toleration.”
An article at The Blaze continues this line of reasoning in an article entitled “It’s `Washington’s Birthday’: Here are his 5 most important warnings to Congress” Becket Adams wrote: “[George Washington] refused this power because he believed in the cause of the republic.
“Understanding the pitfalls of organized government, Washington in his 1798 farewell address to Congress urged U.S. lawmakers to guard against unnecessary wars and racking up unsustainable public debt, among other things.
“Considering the fact that the nation’s capital has in recent years become a spectacle more deserving of mockery than praise, perhaps it’s worth revisiting some of his warnings to Congress.
“On the Constitution: `This government … has a just claim to your confidence and your support. Respect for its authority, compliance with its laws, acquiescence in its measures, are duties enjoined by the fundamental maxims of true liberty. The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their constitutions of government.’
“On progressive ideas: `Towards the preservation of your government … resist with care the spirit of innovation upon its principles, however specious the pretexts. One method of assault may be to effect, in the forms of the Constitution, alterations which will impair the energy of the system, and thus to undermine what cannot be directly overthrown….’
“On political parties: `Let me now … warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally. This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.
“`The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.
“`But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.’
“On war: `The Nation, which indulges towards another an habitual hatred, or an habitual fondness, is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest…. The Nation, prompted by ill-will and resentment, sometimes impels to war the Government, contrary to the best calculations of policy….’
“On public debt: ‘As a very important source of strength and security, cherish public credit. One method of preserving it is to use it as sparingly as possible, avoiding occasions of expense by cultivating peace, but remembering also that timely disbursements to prepare for danger frequently prevent much greater disbursements to repel it, avoiding likewise the accumulation of debt, not only by shunning occasions of expense, but by vigorous exertion in time of peace to discharge the debts which unavoidable wars may have occasioned, not ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear.'"
President George Washington was a truly great man who set an excellent example for his successors. He, along with many Founders, was concerned about whether or not future generations could keep the liberty and freedoms which were bestowed upon them. This is the reason why he felt the need to share his counsel as he was leaving office. As the “indispensable man” of the founding period, President George Washington remains worthy to be honored on his birthday. I encourage you to join me in referring to the holiday held on the third Monday in February as “Washington’s Birthday.”