I recently found myself in the awkward position of trying to explain what Presidents’ Day means to an inquiring twelve-year-old student. After a few minutes of uninterrupted babble on my part, she said she still didn’t get it. Of course, how could she, since I didn’t get it? Not a good spot for an old teacher to be in.
It turns out that Presidents’ Day was an attempt in 1971 to celebrate George Washington’s Birthday (February 22) on the third Monday of February so that working folks could have a three-day weekend. It soon came to be called Presidents’ Day, possibly because Lincoln’s birthday is on February 12. And then, somehow, all presidents were to be noted and honored equally on this day, from James K. Polk to Warren G. Harding.
Today, the only thing twelve-year-olds and old teachers know about this day is that department stores have sales to celebrate it, while the birthdays of Washington and Lincoln are forgotten. I should mention in passing — with due respect to both the girl’s parents and her school — that this young lady knew next to nothing about either Washington or Lincoln. She knew nothing about their greatness or how they helped make us what we are as a free people with a constitution.
The all-important fact that we live in a constitutional edifice — a regime of civil and religious liberty, as Washington phrased it — is due not only to the greatness of our Founders as political architects, but also to the character of George Washington, without whom we would have no constitution.
George Washington was indispensable to the American cause. It is not simply that he was our victorious general, or that he bowed to civilian authority by resigning his position after the Revolution, or that he ended the Newburgh conspiracy with a fine speech about becoming blind in the service of his country, or that he did not run for a third term, but because he was worthy of the country’s entire trust.
All the Founders, even those with whom he sometimes disagreed, trusted him. This man of extraordinary capacity and moral stature presided over a Constitutional Convention that was filled with the brightest minds and noblest men on the continent. As he succeeded, so did they.
Washington’s birthday is worth remembering by at least telling a few good (and true) stories of his many good deeds, and maybe by reading a few of his good words; for example, his August 1790 letter to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport in which he welcomes Jews into the new nation (something that had never happened in human history) — good and true sentiments, expressed with poetic clarity. This newborn America was indeed a New Order of the Ages.
Abraham Lincoln’s statesmanship — and humane grandeur — in saving the Union is also worth remembering annually. We should think about how he saved it as he “saved our ancient faith” — and made it worthy of the saving — by reminding us that the essence of democracy is to know that “as I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.”
And this quintessentially American and self-made man — as the recent Lincoln movie well shows — was able to transform self-evident truths into political propositions and then into moral sentiments. With both charity and firmness in the right, he shaped public opinion by poetic words that lodged themselves in the hearts of his fellow countrymen.
February is a good month to remind ourselves of the peaks of democratic excellence, of two men who not only rose to meet crises, but whose intellect and character helped shape us as a free and self-governing people. If we appreciate music, we listen to Beethoven, and if we care for poetry, we read Shakespeare; just so, if we are interested in politics, we must study Washington and Lincoln. Life is short; let us make friends with the best.
This is what I wanted to lucidly explain to my twelve-year-old interrogator when she caught me off guard.
Let’s put an end to Presidents’ Day and celebrate the birthdays of the two men who will always be with us and of us. Maybe then we will be reminded of political and moral excellence, and thereby rekindle our interest in what it means to be an American.
— Peter W. Schramm is the executive director of the Ashbrook Center and a professor of political science at Ashland University.