The third Monday in February has come to be known—wrongly—as President’s Day. But, this is not a day to celebrate every president in our Nation’s history. The president who fails to wear a coat in cold weather should not be honored as much as the one who defeats the British’s Hessian mercenaries during a blizzard. This is the day that we celebrate the man who led America to victory in the War for Independence, who was instrumental in the creation of our Constitution, and whose character forever shaped the executive branch. We celebrate George Washington. That’s why the holiday is Washington’s Birthday—not President’s day.
What makes George Washington a great president, worthy of such celebration, an example to all other presidents? In short, he was committed to the principles of the American Founding: Liberty, Natural Rights, Equality, Religious Liberty, Economic Opportunity, the Rule of Law, Constitutionalism, Self-government, National Independence.
For nearly two centuries, Washington was celebrated every February 22nd. According to Al Felzenberg, Washington’s troops set aside that day during the War for Independence to honor him, especially for his surprise victories over Hessian mercenaries at Trenton and British troops at Princeton. Yearly celebrations continued during and after Washington’s presidency, but Congress did not officially recognize Washington’s birthday as a national holiday until 1870.
Congress made Monday the official day to commemorate national figures and events with the Monday Holiday Law in 1968 (Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July are exceptions to the Monday rule). Observance of Washington’s birthday was moved from February 22 to the third Monday in February. Contrary to popular opinion, no action by Congress or order by any president has changed “Washington’s Birthday” to “President’s Day.” Section 6103 of Title 5, United States Code, still designates the legal federal holiday as “Washington’s Birthday.” It would be easy to for the president to issue an executive order that would enforce the law and remind all Americans that George Washington ought not to be lumped in with every other president: good, bad, and the ugly (yes, James Buchanan we are talking about you).
If anyone in American history (let alone a president) deserves to have a day celebrated in his honor, it’s George Washington. Henry Lee summed up Washington the best when he said: “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen, he was second to none in humble and enduring 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…. Correct throughout, vice shuddered in his presence and virtue always felt his fostering hand. The purity of his private character gave effulgence to his public virtues…. Such was the man for whom our nation mourns.” Such was the man for whom our nation celebrates this weekend.