Monday, February 18, 2008

George Washington's Birthday

An Our Word Flashback

From February 20, 2006:

In this fascinating little tidbit from The Corner, John J. Miller provides the answer, courtesy of Matthew Spalding of the Heritage Foundation:

The third Monday in February has come to be known - wrongly - as President's Day. ... Although it was celebrated as early as 1778, and by the early 19th century was second only to the Fourth of July as a patriotic holiday, Congress did not officially recognize Washington's Birthday as a national holiday until 1870. The Monday Holiday Law in 1968--applied to executive branch departments and agencies by Richard Nixon's Executive Order 11582 in 1971--moved the holiday from February 22 to the third Monday in February. Section 6103 of Title 5, United States Code, currently designates that legal federal holiday as "Washington's Birthday." Contrary to popular opinion, no action by Congress or order by any President has changed "Washington's Birthday" to "President's Day."

I’ve always had a great admiration for Washington. He towers over the history of our country, even in those scenes in which he doesn’t directly appear (in the musical 1776, for example, Washington’s presence is always there through the dispatches he sends the Second Continental Congress, even though Washington himself is not a character in the story). There’s a nobility about him that made quite an impression on his contemporaries, a nobility that seems to be missing from much of our culture today, political or otherwise.

Washington had quite a different view of the presidency (an office that was tailor-made for him, as the documents from the Constitutional Convention show) than we do today, believing that the president should be more of an impartial adjudicator of events, a man whose first priority was to represent the interests of the nation as a whole, even as Congress had their own personal constituencies to represent.

There is much to admire in Washington, both as a man and as president. He is, in my estimation, the greatest American (which is not to denigrate men such as Franklin and Lincoln, who would stand out in any age). There are many outstanding books on Washington; two of my favorites are the multi-volume biography by James Thomas Flexner (available in this handy one-volume printing), and the brief, excellent Founding Father by Rick Brookheiser. A pity that so many schoolchildren nowadays, when they hear of Washington at all, are taught merely that he was a slave-owner.

So, at a time when our political discourse seems to sink lower and lower into irrelevance and our "leaders" provide very little leadership other than in raising money, let us take a moment to remember with gratitude our first president, the Father of His Country, perhaps the greatest American ever: G. Washington.

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