Every year since 1986 when Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was first observed as a federal holiday I find myself in a snit. Not because I disagree with what Dr. King stood for nor appreciate his contribution for making America a better country, but because the addition of his birthday to the federal calendar caused George Washington’s birthday to be collapsed into the now generic Presidents’ Day.
This day includes him and all forty-three men who have succeeded him; some of whom were great and others who weren’t. The one undisputed fact, however, is that all those who have served as America’s Chief-Executive, for the past 222 years, have done so because of George Washington. It is widely agreed by historians that our nation, as we know it, exists widely due to him. The historian, James Thomas Flexner calls Washington “The Indispensable Man.”
It wouldn’t be too far a stretch to say that America at its best is George Washington. By not focusing directly on him as a person and his achievements, we risk losing our national identity.
Of course there are others who have contributed to America’s greatness and, dare I say, its exceptionalism, but they in reality were only ancillary to developing the vision that began with Washington. This includes Dr. King and even Abraham Lincoln who, it so happens, also lost his birthday-bash to the newly morphed three-day weekend celebration in February.
Washington’s natural gifts of strength, courage and intelligence, his striving for self-perfection and his willingness to grow in political and moral insight, made him an ideal nation builder. It also makes him the quintessential role model for all Americans – a self-made man who sought to be virtuous for his own good and the sake of his country.
Much has been made of Washington’s virtues. Like all humans, he had to work at conforming his will to act nobly. His few intimates, for example, were aware that beneath his well controlled façade there lay an explosive temper that he displayed only on rare occasions.
His courage in battle, his altruism in remaining with the rag-tag Continental Army, and his refusal to return home to his beloved plantation, Mount Vernon, for six years during the Revolution were certainly personal sacrifices. His greatest act, however, was stepping down from the presidency after two terms in office.
Most historians believe had he not he could have become a de facto monarch. (Before the 22nd Amendment was passed, in 1947, there was no limit on the number of terms a president could serve.) These acts also served as symbolic gestures which he believed were necessary for success in the war and for maintaining a free republic.
There are of course those who would chastise Washington for owning slaves. He was, however, a product of his times and geography. However, there was in him a growing moral sense of slavery being an affront to human dignity, and he hoped that it could one day be eradicated. As to how, he was not sure.
Nevertheless, it is important to note that Washington had the only integrated army in American history before the Vietnam War and that in his will he reached out from the grave and granted his slaves manumission.
The achievements of both Lincoln and King were only possible because they recognized Washington as the “Father of our Country.” This once universally accepted designation must not be lost by celebrating only a part of our country’s story on King’s birthday or by a watered down Presidents’ Day.
In doing so, we lose the big picture that only Washington gives us. It is his vision that makes America free and prosperous and continually strive toward becoming a more just society.
Congress should, therefore, re-establish Washington’s Birthday, February 22nd, as a national holiday. This day should not be tagged onto a weekend either. It must stand by itself as Washington stands by himself.
This will also help to avoid some of the commercialization of the day that has overshadowed Washington and his unique achievements. Presidents’ Day should be eliminated to keep the number of federal holidays to ten.
As for Lincoln and King their duly deserved recognition can be celebrated together, since their goals were more or less similar, on the third Monday of January. Being true Americans they would surely agree that Washington’s Birthday is the indispensible holiday.