Visit the website of the U.S. House of Representatives and you will see a calendar informing us that Feb. 17 is one of the 11 permanent federal holidays the United States has established by law and that what’s being celebrated is Presidents’ Day.
The U.S. Senate website also tells us this federal holiday we’re celebrating is Presidents’ Day.
There is no such federal holiday as Presidents’ Day. And there never has been.
It’s tempting to quip that the folks in charge at the House of Representatives and Senate don’t have a clue what day it is.
Since 1880, the United States has had a congressionally designated federal holiday marking the birthday of our country’s first president. It was always celebrated on the day on which he was born, Feb. 22—until in 1968, Congress enacted the Uniform Monday Holiday Act that changed certain federal holidays from specific dates to designated Mondays to create more three-day weekends.
Since it took effect, by law, the third Monday in February is observed as the federal holiday of Washington’s Birthday.
The White House website contains an article titled, “The Great Debate: Is it Presidents’ Day—or Washington’s Birthday?” It states: “Yet despite the holiday often being referred to as ‘Presidents’ Day’ in practice, the official federal holiday continues to be known as ‘Washington’s Birthday.’”
Give the folks in charge at the White House credit for at least knowing what day it is officially.
But what this federal holiday is supposed to be called and what most Americans wrongly believe it is called are in conflict, causing great confusion over just what the holiday being celebrated today actually celebrates.
The Great Custom and Tradition We’ve Thrown Away
When the Uniform Monday Holiday Act was being considered, it was the long-established, widespread custom every February for Americans to celebrate both Washington’s Birthday and Lincoln’s Birthday (Feb. 12), even though Lincoln’s has never been a federal holiday.
Children grew up learning a good bit about why America had had such great leaders in “Honest Abe” Lincoln and in “I cannot tell a lie” George Washington. And every February, adults would have their memories refreshed.
That was precisely the purpose of this custom and tradition—to educate Americans about the ideas and ideals that define our country; to inspire us with models of truly great Americans and nudge us to emulate such qualities and demand them of any who seek to lead the United States.
A Republican congressman from Illinois named Robert McClory, who loved that Lincoln hailed from Illinois, may well have thought he was enhancing Lincoln’s legacy with his scheming while Congress was pondering moving some holidays from specific dates to designated Mondays, but he didn’t and instead helped diminish Washington’s.
He proposed renaming the Washington’s Birthday holiday Presidents’ Day, apparently thinking it would become a holiday shared by the two great presidents. It caused an uproar, not only among Virginians but also in Congress and among the general public.
He did succeed in positioning the Washington’s Birthday federal holiday to fall on the third Monday in February. We can only speculate as to what extent, if any, spite motivated him in this date pick, but unquestionably he was deceitful about it.
“We would make George Washington’s Birthday more meaningful to many more people by having it observed on a Monday,” he declared. There was nothing to substantiate such a preposterous claim.
“Indeed,” he proclaimed, “his [Washington’s] birthday will be celebrated frequently on February 22, which in many cases will be the third Monday in February. It will also be celebrated on February 23, just as it is at the present time when February 22 falls on the Sunday preceding.”
That was a lie. The third Monday will always fall between Feb. 15 and Feb. 21. He was told that at the time.
Republican congressman Richard Harding Poff of Virginia, who had exposed McClory’s lie, moved to keep the Washington’s Birthday holiday in place at Feb. 22. The House, with 248 Democrats and 187 Republicans, rejected that by a vote of 153–141. In the Senate, no effort was made in opposition to the change.
Another Republican congressman, Dan Heflin Kuykendall of Tennessee, made a prophetic warning: “If we do this, 10 years from now our schoolchildren will not know or care when George Washington was born. They will just know that in the middle of February, they have a three-day weekend for some reason.”
And that’s exactly what has come to pass.
We now find ourselves at the point where it doesn’t matter that U.S. law still officially designates today’s federal holiday as Washington’s Birthday; what matters is that most Americans think it’s Presidents’ Day.
Nor does it matter much that states can and do set holidays on their own power, because they generally echo federal holidays, so what’s a federal holiday is virtually a national holiday.
Is Any President as Worth Honoring as Is Our Greatest?
Sadly, the History Channel’s website article is correct when it states: “Presidents’ Day is now popularly viewed as a day to celebrate all U.S. presidents, past and present.” Most outlets report the same. Some even report that it’s a celebration of the office of the president.
Does anyone honestly believe that any given president is as worthy of our celebration as any other?
There is grave consequence to our permitting such irreverent diminishment of esteem for “The Father of Our Country”: Our young will never learn, our adults will soon forget, and it will fade from our national consciousness how blessed America is to have had in Washington such an astonishingly great leader who personified character, integrity, honesty, courage, humility, and profound love of country.
It was because of George Washington more than any other person that the United States of America became a country.
As commander-in-chief of the American Continental Army, he led 13 often-squabbling colonies to victory over the greatest military power in the world.
When things were shaky under the Articles of Confederation, James Madison, the driving force behind uniting the states under a new constitution, instinctively knew that if he could get Washington to be president of the 1787 Constitutional Convention, it would succeed.
And when the states ratified the Constitution, Washington was the obvious choice for first president of the United States.
‘The Greatest Man in the World’
Not long after the British had surrendered to Washington at Yorktown, British King George III asked his American painter, Benjamin West, what Washington would do following his great success.
West replied, “They say he will return to his farm.”
The King couldn’t believe that any mortal held in such awe by so many would walk away from power and said, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”
He did it twice.
As the end of his second term approached, many beseeched him to continue for another one, perhaps even more. But no such temptation could match his strength of character that compelled him to honor his sense of duty and love for America by once again walking away from power.
When he died, Congress commissioned Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, his dear friend and Continental Army comrade-in-arms, to write a eulogy to express “those sentiments of respect for the character, of the gratitude for the service, and of grief for the death of that illustrious personage.”
Near the end of Lee’s 3,500-word moving tribute, we find these immortal words about Washington:
“First in war—first in peace—and first in the hearts of his countrymen, he was second to none in the humble and endearing scenes of private life; pious, just, humane, temperate and sincere; uniform, dignified and commanding, his example was as edifying to all around him, as were the effects of that example lasting.”
Washington’s example is edifying for all Americans for all time. We should resolve that the effects of his example shall last as long as the United States does.
We need a restoration of the better culture and tradition that we had, not all that long ago. It’s appalling that as America celebrates a federal holiday today, most Americans, even so many public officials and so-called thought leaders, are clueless as to what we’re really supposed to be celebrating.
Today is the Washington’s Birthday holiday. In honoring “The Father of Our Country” today, children should be learning and adults should be remembering—lest we ever forget—just how precious is our great American heritage.
Fred J. Eckert is a former member of Congress and twice served as a U.S. ambassador under President Ronald Reagan, who called him “a good friend and valued adviser … one of a kind … a man of great experience and wisdom” and declared, “He has a quality that is all too rare in the political world, he has political courage; I know, for I have been a personal witness to that courage.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.