We are approaching another “Presidents’ Day,” which will be celebrated this year on February 21. This federal holiday has evolved from a celebration of George Washington’s birthday (February 22) to an amorphous celebration of all of our nation’s presidents. But all of our nation’s presidents are not worth celebrating (just think about the dismal first-year performance of the current one). And the notion that we celebrate one branch of three supposedly co-equal branches of government in a constitutional structure that also embraced federalism and limited government reeks of what James Burnham called “Bonapartism” and “Caesarism.”
The official national celebration of Washington’s birthday began in 1885. Many states also subsequently celebrated Abraham Lincoln’s birthday (February 12). In 1971, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act to effectively create more three-day weekends for federal employees. Initially, the “Presidents’ Day” moniker was intended to recognize both Washington and Lincoln. Since then, however, it has been popularly presented, in the words of History.com’s editors, as “a day to celebrate all U.S. presidents, past and present.” The PBS Learning Media website has a short video that explains how Presidents’ Day “evolved from a birthday party for George Washington to an observance for all of the Presidents.” Normally on “Presidents’ Day,” the History Channel presents programs about all of the nation’s presidents.
We have transformed a national celebration of a great man and his unparalleled accomplishments into an unwarranted reverence for the office of president.
George Washington, at least until the emergence of the current “cancel culture,” occupied a special place in American history. He was eulogized by “Light Horse” Harry Lee (who served as a major general in the Continental Army, member of the Continental Congress, and governor of Virginia) as “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” When England’s King George III was told that Washington was going to resign his commission after the War of Independence instead of taking the reins of power as a dictator or king, he remarked, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”
It is Washington the man whom we should commemorate in February, not the office of president that he occupied for eight years.
During the War of Independence, Washington almost single-handedly kept the Continental Army from collapsing in its struggle against the forces of the British empire. His brilliant and courageous retreat from New York, his daring crossing of the Delaware and victory at Trenton, and his leadership at the culminating battle at Yorktown, among other feats, secured the nation’s independence. At Newburgh and New Windsor in 1783, he ended a budding mutiny by Continental officers by the sheer force of his personality and manifest commitment to preventing the American Revolution from descending into the chaos and cruelty of so many other revolutions throughout history, when he remarked while affixing his eyeglasses to read a letter to them: “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.”
That service to his country, of course, continued after the war. As president, he kept the young nation from becoming embroiled in European wars, despite popular sentiment (including Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson) to side with France. He also backed Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton’s policies that set the nation on a course of economic and commercial growth. And in his Farewell Address, he sagely counseled his countrymen and his successors always to act in the national interest. Biographer James Thomas Flexner rightly called Washington the “indispensable man.”
It is Washington the man whom we should commemorate in February, not the office of president that he occupied for eight years. Indeed, there is great danger in elevating the presidency to a position above the other branches of the federal government and in elevating the federal government to a position of omnipotence over the states. But that is what we have done to a degree that would have stunned Washington and the other founders of our country.
The political philosopher James Burnham analyzed this phenomenon in his much-neglected book Congress and the American Tradition (1959). Burnham showed how, beginning with the progressive programs of Woodrow Wilson and greatly expanding under Franklin Roosevelt, the president began to function as the nation’s legislative leader, increasingly replaced treaties (which required Senate confirmation) with executive agreements, took the nation to war without congressional declarations of war, and governed in some respects by executive orders. The enormous growth of presidential power was couched in terms of carrying out the “will of the people” and fulfilling democracy.
But Burnham saw it differently. He viewed the growth of presidential power as the “logic of democratism,” which attempts to delegitimize all “intermediary institutions” between the president and the people. The logic of democratism, Burnham wrote, is that the president — the nation’s executive — represents the general will of the people, which is no different from what Caesar and Napoleon proclaimed. Burnham warned that the “democratist ideology” that celebrates presidential power leads to despotism.
Officially, the holiday is still “Washington’s Birthday,” and that is what it should be. It is time to scrap the now-accepted “President’s Day.” We should return to calling the holiday by its official name, celebrate it on Washington’s actual birthday (this would likely take another act of Congress), and celebrate the man, not the office, for his indispensable role in the founding of our country.