One month after honoring Martin Luther King, Jr., Americans honor the Presidents. This is quite a change of tone, from commemorating a martyr to celebrating an institution. But then this Presidents’ Day business is still fairly new. Until recently, Americans operated under the quaint idea that George Washington deserved to be remembered every February. But through a complicated sequence of good intentions, vanity, and cultural relativism, we have arrived at this thoroughly contemporary and meaningless replacement. Presidents’ Day is an insult to the memory of Washington and deserves the indifference with which it is generally greeted.
What happened to Washington’s Birthday? The American people had begun celebrating it while he was still alive, and it became a formal federal holiday in 1885. Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, also in February, was never a federally recognized holiday but was observed in many states outside the old South. For a long time, then, millions of Americans observed two separate days for the two most consequential men in the nation’s history.
In 1968, Congress passed the Monday Holidays Act, moving the federal observance of Washington’s Birthday from its actual date (February 22) to the third Monday in February, thereby creating an extra three-day weekend. In passing the legislation, Congress rejected arguments to rename the holiday Presidents’ Day in recognition of both Washington and Lincoln. Washington’s Birthday would continue to stand alone, with Lincoln’s not quite at the same level.
But then Richard Nixon came to town. Signing the act into law in 1971, he publicly proclaimed it Presidents’ Day, and he put his own spin on that term: the holiday would not merely honor Washington and Lincoln but all previous presidents. One imagines Nixon’s gesture was motivated by his colossal insecurity and vanity, for he was a president as obsessed with “legacy” as Bill Clinton. In this case, he has a legacy to point to. While the federal government still officially considers the holiday Washington’s Birthday, Nixon’s Presidents’ Day is now the accepted term. No one understands anymore whether it is dedicated to Washington, Lincoln, or the institution of the presidency, the latter a strange idea in a country with three branches of government and a hereditary aversion to executive power.
With Washington and Lincoln swallowed up in the void of Presidents’ Day — sharing space with the likes of James Buchanan, Benjamin Harrison, and Jimmy Carter — the long march of American historical vandalism continues. Presidents’ Day, like some kind of civic affirmative action program, renders merit irrelevant. In so doing, it further expunges Washington from the collective American psyche.
It does something else, too: It elevates Martin Luther King above Washington and all other American historical figures. For King, not Washington, is now the only American with a holiday to his name. This is a travesty, one having nothing to do with King’s worthiness. For the leader of a great social movement to be enthroned above the man who was his nation’s most important military and civilian leader is an astonishing state of affairs. George Washington is homeless in today’s America, where greatness pays tribute to the gods of sensitivity and where emotion runs roughshod over a dispassionate understanding of the tragedies of history. No doubt at some future point King, too, will be brought before that severe tribunal and be found lacking.
Given America’s shameful racial heritage, the King holiday is entirely appropriate. If it can be said, using some historical shorthand, that Washington built the country and Lincoln saved it, then the movement King led redeemed it. Those who see King Day as an empty gesture are entirely blind to the power of symbols in knitting a society together. But no one is suggesting that King Day be renamed National Civil Rights Day, by which we would remember all the nation’s courageous champions of that cause — Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Ward Connerly. One can imagine the outcry that would greet such a suggestion. To most Americans, King stands for certain ideas — equality, justice, racial tolerance — and his name encompasses the names of others who have engaged in the struggle throughout our history.
There is little outcry, however, about the exile of Washington from our public life. Washington, who won America’s independence from the greatest empire in the world against ridiculous odds; Washington, who held together a fledgling, fractious nation as our first president, often through sheer force of character; Washington, who walked away from supreme power not once but twice to ensure that America would be a nation of laws, not men. For this man, his country has only a bastard holiday to offer.
PRESIDENTS’ DAY MAY HAVE BEEN Richard Nixon’s grotesque inspiration, but we have ratified it in the ensuing years. The new holiday is very much of a piece with more recent aberrations like multiculturalism and political correctness, forces that contribute to the steady erosion of once widely held civic loyalties. Where Nixon’s original impulse in proclaiming it may have been mere vanity, Presidents’ Day owes its growing acceptance to a more corrosive influence: civic nihilism.
George Washington knew something about nihilism. In 1794, the president peacefully put down the Whiskey Rebellion, a tax revolt among American farmers in Pennsylvania. In doing so, he cautioned against the dangers nihilism posed to the survival of a republic based on laws:
“If the laws are to be trampled upon with impunity…[and] a minority…is to dictate to the majority, there is an end put at one stroke to republican government…for some other man or society may dislike another law and oppose it with equal propriety until all laws are prostrate, and everyone will carve for himself.”
Washington was referring to a situation that threatened public order, not something so sedate as choosing national holidays. But his image of citizens carving for themselves is apt, a succinct metaphor for the cultural subjectivity that has eroded his memory. Why should I respect Washington? asks the college student. I don’t feel any emotional connection, and besides, he owned slaves. And with that, a generation exempts itself from any obligation to remember a man whose career, ironically enough, was spent in toil for what he repeatedly called “the unborn millions.”
Coming together at the beginning of each new year, King Day and Presidents’ Day present a twisted composite of the national psyche — our ongoing devotion to the principle of civil rights, and our heedless dismissal of the national heritage that makes civil rights possible. The two holidays are a reminder of our continued inability to talk honestly with one another about our values and our history.
Americans of a certain age know that Washington was once esteemed as “First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.” The deterioration of that sentiment, to the extent that we no longer see fit to remember his name, makes Presidents’ Day a bitter and sobering occasion. All the more so this year, as shadows of menace spread across the land and the American character awaits new tests.
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