We interrupt your regularly scheduled Presidents Day weekend sales for the impeachment trial of our newest ex-president.
There’s something ludicrous about celebrating our chief executives after the world’s greatest deliberative body just pondered whether to ban Donald Trump from ever again becoming president, over a charge that he incited a riot in order to stay in that office.
That “Presidents Day” is not actually the name of the federal holiday we observe on the third Monday in February only makes the situation more bizarre. As the Christian Science Monitor has observed, the proper answer to the query "When is Presidents Day this year?" is "never."
Within a couple of decades, “Washington’s Birthday” morphed into the featureless holiday-that-launched-a-thousand-sales, Presidents Day.
In fact, on Monday we technically only commemorate George Washington’s birthday — which is Feb. 22, a week after the 2021 federal holiday for Washington’s Birthday. If you don’t believe me, you can check the Office of Personnel Management’s official listing of federal holidays, which denotes that it is designated such in no less than “section 6103(a) of title 5 of the United States Code.”
“Though other institutions such as state and local governments and private businesses may use other names,” the site adds rather punctiliously, “it is our policy to always refer to holidays by the names designated in the law.”
But perhaps OPM is on to something, and the sad spectacle just concluded in the Senate is just the latest reason why we should return this holiday to its roots and celebrate the father of our country rather than his mostly middling successors.
How did a presidential pastiche supersede the singular Washington?
The first president’s birthday was observed as a federal holiday starting in the 1880s with a law signed by the immortal Rutherford B. Hayes, whose victory in a contested Electoral College vote many Americans likely heard about in great detail last November. Just shy of a century later — as the historian C.L. Arbelbide has recounted in exhaustive detail — Congress enacted a law designating that certain federal holidays would be observed exclusively on Mondays so as to create long weekends. It was a boon to retailers who could build sales around them and also to manufacturers, who no longer needed to worry about floating days off interrupting production.
The celebration of Washington’s birth was thus moved to the third Monday in February — which, as it happens, can never fall on the 22nd of the month because of math. The sponsor of the Mondays-only holiday bill was from Illinois and thus undoubtedly didn’t mind that the presidential holiday would fall closer to the Feb. 12 birthdate of the Prairie State’s favorite adopted son, Abraham Lincoln (an anniversary then widely celebrated in Northern states).
The same august member had unsuccessfully pushed to formally change the holiday’s name from Washington’s Birthday to “President’s Day.”
He failed in part because critics of separating Washington’s birthday from his birthdate presciently foresaw that the two great presidents’ celebrations would merge in the public consciousness, diminishing both men.
They were right: Within a couple of decades, “Washington’s Birthday” morphed into the featureless holiday-that-launched-a-thousand-sales, Presidents Day, while Lincoln’s is now largely neglected. A comparison of how often people search Google for “Presidents Day” vs. “Washington’s Birthday” illustrates how completely our first president has been subsumed into the humdrum whole. The third Monday in February has become the holiday equivalent of a presidential participation trophy.
(A popular misconception has Richard Nixon proclaiming “Presidents Day” as a “holiday set aside to honor all presidents, even myself” — but while Washington allegedly could not tell a lie, the internet can and, in this case, does.)
It is no mistake that presidents generally became the presumed object of celebration during an era in which the office has grown largely without check or balance both in terms of public perception and actual power.
“It speaks to is the extent to which the presidency has become such a dominant political institution in our country,” the distinguished presidential historian Robert Dallek told me. “Anyone who becomes president can be folded into that name and association with it. … It speaks volumes about our political culture.”
That trend of a more imperious presidency, and the American people’s acceptance of it, has dramatically accelerated in recent decades. The road from a disgraced Nixon preposterously telling David Frost that “when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal” to Trump’s lawyers essentially making that case in court has been harrowing. And a polarized and tribalized Congress has done little to check or balance its own slow slide into irrelevance, either abdicating responsibility through gridlock or, when the president’s party is in charge, supinely acceding to its own marginalization. (See, again, Trump and congressional Republicans — even now.)
Both the office of the president and the holiday of the presidents need to be right-sized. One small way to start doing both would be to put Washington back at the center of his own birthday party. A renewed focus on his life might serve as a useful reminder that the presidency was not intended to be the dominant, nigh-monarchical office it has become.
The Constitutional Convention, over which Washington presided, produced an executive whose power was to be deliberately circumscribed by the other two coequal branches, while doing the same to them. Finding that balance was considered critical. “The first man put at the helm would be a good one,” Benjamin Franklin said, referring to Washington. “Nobody knows what sort may come afterwards.”
Well, we now do know: forgettable mediocrities occasionally distinguished by greatness (Lincoln, for example) and malevolence (Trump). We are fortunate that the first man “at the helm” was conscious of the standard he set in office, whether in abjuring fancy titles (Vice President John Adams floated “His Elective Majesty” and “His Highness, the President of the United States of America and the Protector of Their Liberties”) or voluntarily returning to private life after two terms in office, for example. He was aware that he “walk[ed] on untrodden ground,” as he often put it.
A renewed focus on his life might serve as a useful reminder that the presidency was not intended to be the dominant, nigh-monarchical office it has become.
We would do well to study his steps.
It’s worth noting, too, that we can do so while acknowledging that pre-eminence is not the same as perfection. A man of his times, Washington is tainted by our country’s original sin: slavery. He owned other human beings as chattel. But we can celebrate him in all of his dimensions, acknowledging both his greatness and his great flaws. Even our best Americans can exhibit some of our worst national traits. That contrast can serve as a reminder of both how far we have had to come as a country and the magnificence to which we should all aspire.
And no — contrary to right-wing hysteria — we’re not going to impeach Washington. Let’s just wish him a happy birthday.