The submersion of the national holiday honoring George Washington into a generic and meaningless “Presidents Day” is one of the nearly too-many-to-count bad things we owe to the administration of the late and unlamented Richard Nixon. A number of editorialists this year are arguing that America needs to do the right thing by going back to honoring our first, and possibly greatest, national hero.
In 1968, the public-employee unions, seeking a three-day weekend, convinced Congress to move the commemoration of Washington’s birthday to the third Monday in February. This eventually led to what we now call Presidents Day, which marks the birthday not only of Washington but of Lincoln and all other presidents. By celebrating every birthday, we effectively celebrate none.
Washington’s contemporaries hailed his Revolutionary War victories at Trenton and Yorktown, but they honored him more for risking his fame, fortune and life in taking on military responsibilities for which he wasn’t paidâ€”and then giving up command to return to his farm and family. The young American citizenry esteemed him for bringing together and presiding over the Constitutional Convention, but they honored him more for his steadfastness in holding the colonies together and facing down potential insurrectionists who might have seized the government and made him a military dictator. And while they appreciated him returning to public service as president, they honored him more for leaving an office that many expected him to hold for life.
Americans in the 18th and 19th centuries were unaware of, but they would not have been surprised by, what King George III supposedly said upon hearing that Washington, after winning the Revolutionary War, had refused to be king: “If that is true, he must be the greatest man in the world.” …
Our ancestors expected that America would produce other great leaders. But they celebrated Washington’s birthday because, as the Connecticut Courant observed in 1791, “Many a private man might make a great president; but will there ever be a President who will make so great a man as WASHINGTON?”