Once upon a time the people celebrated the anniversary of their founding leader’s birthday with parades, flags and patriotic speeches. Many years later, the country’s legislators decided that this celebration, along with some others, should take place on the nearest Monday. This was deemed a good idea because it ended mid-week work interruptions and gave everyone several three-day weekends. About the time it passed, the country’s leader was so enthusiastic about it that he issued a proclamation, declaring that the founding leaders’ birthday holiday would henceforth be known as Presidents’ Day. Thus, the citizenry would honor all of the country’s leaders, not just one.
A charming footnote from recent American history? Nope. It’s fiction, around which mythology has grown. What we are celebrating today (in fact all this long weekend) is the George Washington’s Birthday Holiday. Presidents’ Day has no official standing of any kind.
Here is what happened. In 1968, Congress passed a “uniform holiday” bill which provided that three national holidays be held on a Monday, rather than their actual dates: Washington’s Birthday, Memorial day and Veterans’ Day. It also established Columbus Day as a federal holiday. President Lyndon Johnson signed the bill, to become effective On January 1, 1971. On February 11, 1971, then-President Nixon signed an Executive Order setting forth the procedure for implementing the bill. The new annual holiday schedule in that Executive Order included “Washington’s Birthday, the third Monday in February.” No mention of “Presidents’ Day.”
The day he issued the Executive Order happened to be the eve of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. Nixon issued a statement in praise of Lincoln, period (Lincoln’s birthday has never been a federal holiday).
For some years a trend has been developing to devalue the contributions of individuals to our nation’s history and successes. In teachers’ colleges, this fad has taken the form of teaching “bottoms-up” history. That is, placing more emphasis on the quotidian activities of ordinary citizens than on the acts of leaders such as Washington, who took responsibility for holding together a motley army, presided over the Constitutional Convention, led a fledging nation and kept it from flying apart, then set aside the mantle of leadership — a rare occurrence in a world of kings and emperors.
For such faddists, “Presidents’ Day” is tailor made. It trivializes the office. It’s no more important than the 18th Century lady who took in laundry. Presumably, we are to honor equally a Washington, a Lincoln, a Franklin Pierce (most notable achievement, the introduction of perforated postage stamps), William Henry Harrison (who unwisely gave his inaugural address without wearing an overcoat, caught cold and died 30 days later) and Bill Clinton (sex tutor of interns). By honoring all, we honor none.
Critics of “Presidents’ Day” often blame Richard Nixon for making it happen. A widespread canard is that he issued a proclamation about it on February 21, 1971. Susan Naulty, archivist at the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace in California, says he never issued such a proclamation.
Despite that definitive word, the U.S. Embassy in Stockholm, Sweden, of all places, still posts the canard on its website. They’re not the only ones. In 1999, then-President Clinton issued a statement that included the following, “I am pleased to join all Americans in observing Presidents’ Day which celebrates all those who have held America’s highest office.” Why was he so inattentive to the facts and, for that matter, the existing law? One can only guess that, with Monica around, it was hard to concentrate on anything else but her pleasures.
“Presidents’ Day” has been happily promoted for three decades now by mattress and used car salesmen, calendar producers, and by journalists too lazy in the first place to look up the facts.
As you enjoy this holiday, just remember who made it possible, the one whom historian James Flexner called “the indispensable man.” And, as the sun sinks in the west and you lift your martini glass, try this toast based on an 18th Century tune: “Fill the glass to the brink / to Washington’s health we’ll drink.”