Happy Birthday, General Washington

In 1879, Congress established in the later part of February the holiday that we celebrate today. It was named “George Washington’s Birthday” to honor our first president. That remains the official name of the holiday, though popular usage has changed. To call this holiday “President’s Day” is a pernicious misnomer that we should abandon for the sake of our civic education and the health of our political system.

Independence Day and Constitution Day remind us of the documents that laid the foundation for our regime. Both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution belong in the record of the most important texts in human history. Together they laid the foundation for a limited government where authority stemmed from the people and extended only so far as to secure the rights of the people. It is good that we recognize the cornerstone of our Republic with these two holidays. But the presidency is no great innovation in the American regime. It is common for a regime to have a single leader at the head of the executive powers. The office may be well-built in the American system, but it is far from remarkable. As the Anti-Federalist author Cato pointed out, the President’s powers resembled to a great extent those of the King of Great Britain, though they were circumscribed within a republican government. If our holidays are to remind us of the most important aspects of our political system, celebrating President’s Day is a mistake.

Our government has three co-equal branches. Yet there is no Congress Day or Supreme Court Day. Many excellent statesmen like Henry Clay and Daniel Webster have walked the halls of Congress, and great legal minds like John Marshall have sat on the highest court. Their memory should be respected, just as are those of Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and other capable presidents. By holding the presidents as the class of American leaders worth celebrating, we narrow the focus of our political engagement. The president is not the leader of our country, only the head of one branch of its government. We lose sight of that by celebrating his office and his office alone.

Furthermore, living politicians should not be heaped with special honors and glories beyond the necessary dignity of their offices. President’s Day does not share the merits of Inauguration Day. The presidential inauguration deserves a massive ceremony every four years so that we recognize the seriousness of the occasion on which power is peacefully handed from one chief magistrate to the next. This is a treasure of ours – authority in American government has consistently changed hands by peaceful and lawful means. The day is not (adulation of supporters notwithstanding) meant to be a celebration of the incoming president.

President’s Day is different. By its name, it implies that it celebrates all presidents, including the current one. It celebrates the man, not the means by which he enters office. But what did this mean while the President was under investigation for stealing an election at Watergate? What did it mean when the President had admitted to abusing his authority to have an extramarital affair with his subordinate, Monica Lewinsky, in the White House? What did it mean when the presidential election was between a man who refused to distance himself from a leader of the KKK and bragged on hitting on married women, and a woman whose foundation served as a vehicle for foreign governments to influence US policy? That such people could claim the positions they did is not a mark worthy of celebration. To honor all presidents holds these people up as role models. It is better instead that we single out virtuous, honorable leaders (presidents or not) to celebrate, rather than all those who earned the votes to become president.

The great orator Demosthenes once reminded the world’s first democracy that “there is one common bulwark which the instinct of sensible men possesses within itself, a good and safe one for all, but invaluable for democracies against tyrants. And what is that bulwark? It is mistrust.” We must always reserve a healthy skepticism of all political power. If we honor today as a celebration of George Washington, then we can hold up an ideal that few presidents have lived up to. It reminds us to expect more from our presidents while also reminding us of the foundations of our government.

By returning to the true name of the holiday, we will better honor the man who was indispensable to the American Revolution. Washington was a brave and cunning Commander-in-Chief whose leadership built an army from a disorganized hodge-podge of loyal but poorly trained volunteers. His firm hand prevented a military coup that threatened to destroy our republican government in its infancy. And the protocols and examples he set as president have been important to keeping the office limited in scope and dignified in bearing. He gave our country decades of service when he would personally been much happier staying at Mount Vernon. Let us honor him with the recognition he merits. Let us once again celebrate the holiday of “Washington’s Birthday.”