It's been 40 years since Congress created Presidents' Day and what do we have to show for it? For most, it's a three-day weekend in February to ski in the mountains, tan at the beaches, or shop the malls for huge savings. Missing? Any mention of who the original holiday was created for way back in 1879.
That could change if some in Congress, America's historians, and the overseers of Mount Vernon succeed in giving George Washington, the father of the nation and its first president, his national holiday back.
"Today many states, the media, advertisers, and the general public have abandoned recognition of Washington's birthday and replaced it with a commercial shopping holiday that leaves American history and patriotism by the side of the road," says James Rees, president of Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens, Washington's Virginia home. "The holiday was far more meaningful when it revolved around George Washington, and schools were able to focus on his sterling example of character and leadership," he adds.
Leading the battle to rename the national holiday and have it occur on Washington's February 22 birthday, not the third Monday in the month, is Virginia Rep. Frank Wolf. "We're watering down history," he tells Whispers.
Historian Richard Brookhiser suggests that early Americans would be shocked by the lack of respect for GW. "Washington has become disconnected from his own birthday," he wrote to Wolf. "Celebrating it on the most convenient Monday, and calling it by the lazy shortcut 'President's Day,' creates the impression that it honors everyone who made it to the White House, or maybe car and furniture sales."
And Bill Panagopulos, president of Alexander Historical Auctions, says bluntly: "History is dead." He says schools are teaching only the highlights of early American history and that's hurting sales of pre-1900s Americana.
Wolf is motivated in part by government reports that show U.S. students achieving low proficiency levels in history, especially the American Revolution. He feels that putting a renewed focus on Washington's life, integrity, and service—traits that used to be part of Washington's Birthday before the 1971 change—will help kids. "It's time to start honoring Washington and hopefully in the process teach his values to young people," says Wolf, who halfheartedly laments, "You won't get that long ski weekend anymore."