The U.S. Needs Washington's Birthday, Not Just President's Day

The United States should recognize the birthday of our first president as a holiday on its own.

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This drawing shows President George Washington as he delivers his inaugural address in the Senate Chamber of Old Federal Hall in New York on April 30, 1789.

It's almost that time of year again. President's Day, America's annual excuse for a three day weekend and a chance to buy stuff on sale, is upon us. Commercialized beyond even Christmas, the holiday once set aside to mark the birth of George Washington, "the father of our country," has lost all its meaning.

It wasn't always this way. Back when children still believed he chopped down his father's cherry tree, Washington was revered. Now that reverence and awe in which we once held him and the rest of the nation's founders has been lost, replaced by a continuing desire to "humanize" them and, in the process, cheapen their accomplishments.

Washington was a man among men: Planter, surveyor, inventor, politician, warrior, leader. For decades he was the very symbol of the nation he was twice elected to lead—unanimously, the only man to be so honored.

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Without Washington there would be no United States. He was, unique among most historical figures, the truly indispensible man. Yet the honor previously accorded his birth has been lost since 1968 when Congress, under the terms of the so-called "Long Weekend Act," moved his birthday from February 22 to the nearest convenient Monday.

It is remarkable indeed to think that the federal government is so powerful that it can actually "move" a person's birthday—but there you have it. Apparently a three-day weekend is more important than any formal recognition of Washington's accomplishments.

President Richard M. Nixon, who probably suspected even in 1969 that it was unlikely his birthday would ever become a national holiday, seized the opportunity Congress had handed to him—as I have written before—to proclaim Washington's Birthday as a day to remember of all the former presidents. "The father of our country" was thus reduced to a status equal to the lesser lights and virtual non-entities who occupied the nation's highest office, men like Millard Fillmore, James Buchanan, and Franklin Pierce.

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It's not as though Washington were not worth celebrating on his own. The holiday still in the formal sense, retains his name. The culture, on the other hand, chooses to make it about all former presidents, not just him. There may even be good reasons for this but, in the main, it is a mistake. Who but perhaps Lincoln can match what Washington—commander of the American troops in the War for Independence, first president of the United States, symbol of honor, dignity, and honesty—did for America. He brought the nation out of tyranny into the light of freedom and then, through wise leadership, secured for the new nation the time is desperately needed to form its own national character. For this reason above all others, the day must be reclaimed in his honor, and his alone, in order to reaffirm our shared national heritage.

It's time to change all that. Congress should enact, and President Barack Obama should sign, a law re-establishing February 22 as the official observance of Washington's Birthday. The nation needs a dose of historical perspective. Such a move would provide it.

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