by Ben Shapiro 17 Feb 2014, 9:47 AM PDT
George Washington was born on February 22, 1732. Abraham Lincoln was born February 12, 1809. Neither was born on February 17. Yet today, many of us are staying home from work because of the federally declared Presidents Day, established formally in 1968 when the Congress combined the two birthdays in order to “provide uniform annual observances of certain legal public holidays on Mondays.”
This is, to put it mildly, idiotic. Here’s why.
Presidents Day Doesn’t Stand for Anything. There were many states that celebrated Washington’s birthday as a holiday; there were many states that celebrated Lincoln’s birthday as a holiday. There were even a number of states that celebrated March 4, the original inauguration day, as a holiday known as Presidents Day, in order to celebrate the office of the presidency (a bizarre holiday, given that we do not have a Judiciary Day nor a Committee on Foreign Relations Day). Now, however, we’re all off work for a day that bears no relation to Washington, Lincoln, or even a celebration of the office. While Washington's Birthday is still the official name of the holiday, it's become known far and wide as Presidents Day.
It's not that a day off isn’t welcome. It’s just that the rationale is non-existent.
The Presidency Does Not Deserve a Holiday. Let’s assume, though, that we’re somehow celebrating the office of the presidency. That’s problematic, too.
The first known celebration of George Washington’s birthday took place while the great man was still an active general; in 1779, his birthday was celebrated in Milton, Massachusetts. His birthday gradually garnered a larger following; by 1832, a Congressional committee had invited Chief Justice John Marshall to honor Washington with a speech on his birthday. In 1848, Lincoln celebrated Washington’s birthday with oratory:
This is the one hundred and tenth anniversary of the birthday of Washington. We are met to celebrate this day. Washington's is the mightiest name of earth — long since mightiest in the cause of civil liberty; still mightiest in moral reformation. On that name no eulogy is expected. It cannot be. To add brightness to the sun, or glory to the name of Washington, is alike impossible. Let none attempt it. In solemn awe pronounce the name, and in its naked deathless splendor leave it shining on.
Washington’s birthday is worthy of celebration – he is one of the greatest men in history. But Washington himself would likely have seen celebration of the office of the presidency itself as monarchic in nature. He turned down the title of “Your Excellency” in favor of “Mr. President” at the behest of advisors including James Madison specifically in order to avoid imperial vestiges. In his farewell address, Washington mentioned that checks and balances would be necessary to avoid tyranny: “let there be no change by usurpation; for though this, in one instance, may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed.” Worship of an office over other offices certainly smacks of usurpation. Unfortunately, we now treat the president more like a king than anything else; the State of the Union Address’ pomp and grandeur is only the most ridiculous attempt to turn an elected office into an anointed position.
Why Are We Celebrating James Buchanan? Should all presidents be celebrated equally? Why, precisely, are we supposed to cheer the tenure of James Buchanan, whose incompetence and slaveholding sympathies led to the outbreak of the Civil War? Or Woodrow Wilson, whose administrative government has spun so wildly out of control that we no longer elect those who regulate our lives? Or Lyndon Baines Johnson, architect of the Vietnam War and the failed modern welfare state? Or Jimmy Carter, he of the sweaters and the malaise? Or, for that matter, George W. Bush and Barack Obama?
Bad presidents don’t deserve holidays. They deserve scorn.
Why One Day Off Instead of Two? Let’s assume for the moment that the logic behind Presidents Day is actually sound for certain presidents. Why not have a separate holiday for Lincoln and one for Washington – as we used to do, before we became so concerned with the “Every President Gets a Trophy” ethos? Separate holidays would be appropriate, given that Washington and Lincoln certainly disagreed on the extent of federal power and the exercise thereof. Combining their birthdays into one holiday does disrespect to both.
All that said, Happy President’s Day. Now go and celebrate the legacy of William Henry Harrison in style.