Make Washington's Birthday a Federal Holiday Again

The nation should recognize a truly indispensable leader.

The Capitol Rotunda looms over the statue of George Washington on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, Jan. 27, 2014, as the House and Senate resume work in Washington. President Barack Obama will deliver his State of the Union address Tuesday night to a joint session of Congress.

The statue of George Washington in the Capitol Rotunda.

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Without George Washington there would be no United States.

History teaches us that there are very few indispensable men, men with the character and power and dignity to mold and shape events rather than being molded by them. Washington was such a man and, in reverent thanks for all he accomplished, the nation used to set aside his birthday as a national holiday.

It’s time to revive that tradition. It’s time once again to acknowledge the holiday as a day upon which we can remember and reflect all that Washington did to secure what Abraham Lincoln later called, “a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

The intellectual movement that made America possible included some of the finest political and legal minds the nation has ever produced, Benjamin Franklin, Patrick Henry, George Mason, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine among them. It was Washington alone, however, who had the character and fortitude and experience to lead an army in battle and to carry on a war that seemed unwinnable right until its very end.

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His contributions go far beyond that. Offered a kingdom, he instead chose to leave the arena to return home to his farm at Mt. Vernon, content to let others form the political structure and leadership of what after nearly a decade of struggle had become the United States of America. And yet, when called upon unanimously by the members of the first Electoral College to serve as president, he responded to the call.

Almost everything a modern president does and almost everything a modern president of the United States is somehow connects to the precedents Washington set during his eight years in office. He understood too well the responsibilities and the dangers associated with great power and that any one man’s hold on it for too long would imperil the new nation’s democratic republican form of government.

Just as it was with Washington, other men who held the nation’s highest office could have served more than two terms. But not until Franklin Roosevelt were any of them bold enough to challenge the precedent Washington set when he allowed for the peaceful transfer of power from one leader to another.

The honor previously accorded him by the celebration of his birthday as a national holiday was lost in 1968 when Congress -- under the terms of the so-called “Long Weekend Act” -- moved if from February 22 to the nearest convenient Monday. (As I’ve noted before, “it’s remarkable to think the federal government’s power is so expansive that it can actually ‘move’ a person’s birthday – but there you have it.”)

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Washington is worthy of celebrating on his own. In the formal sense, the holiday still retains his name and its original intent was to be a celebration of both Washington and Lincoln while making room for a new federal holiday without exceeding the number already on the calendar. Unfortunately, things have evolved since the 60s so that the American culture makes the day about all presidents, not just him.

Lincoln likewise is worthy of his own day, but who else among the pantheon of presidents is worthy of a federal holiday. Reagan? FDR? Teddy Roosevelt? Maybe, but certainly not James Buchanan, Franklin Pierce or Benjamin Harrison, all of whom are lumped in with the great and near-great presidents of the last 225 or so years. George Washington is unmatched by any of his successors in what he did for America.

Congress should enact, and President Barack Obama should sign, legislation restoring Washington’s February 22 birthday to the calendar as the nation’s official observance of the man, his memory and his accomplishments. He brought the nation out of tyranny into the light of freedom and then, through wise leadership, secured for the new nation the time it 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.