Every year there is always some gnashing of teeth when patriot nerds-in-the-know hear talk of “Presidents’ Day.” The official federal holiday is Washington’s Birthday, and our civic memory of that great man is muddled by mixing in a celebration of some of his lesser successors.
Matters are more confused by the fact that, for reasons of convenience, the federal holiday is set on the third Monday in February, which means that it is never observed on George Washington’s actual birthday. For example, this year’s holiday, with its three-day weekend for many of us, was observed on the Monday at the beginning of the week even though the holiday could just as conveniently have been commemorated today, on the birthday itself.
Although Congress only made Washington’s birthday an official federal holiday in 1879, the occasion had been publicly marked since the Revolution, with celebrations that grew in splendor and elegance along with his renown — a fact that irked Washington’s political opponents during his presidency. And even in those days, the date for properly marking his birthday was not universally agreed upon. The city of Alexandria, Va., with which Washington was intimately associated, long celebrated the occasion with parades and parties on February 11 (the date of his birth according to the old Julian calendar that had been in effect until 1752).
No matter the date, it’s good to find ways to mark Washington’s birthday that go beyond holiday sales at mattress stores and car dealerships. An excellent place to start is a new anthology edited by Amy and Leon Kass. Washington’s Birthday, available online for free, brings together readings from historians, leaders, and poets to help us understand the character and career of our most important Founder. The readings were selected with care and are introduced with probing questions that make the collection useful for teachers — or anyone who wants to think more wisely and deeply about our nation’s founding, the meaning of patriotism, and the nature of military and democratic leadership. (My favorite excerpts in the book are taken from the marvelous and underappreciated biography that Noemie Emery wrote in 1976 — a book that reads like a biography of George Washington as penned by George Eliot.)
The Kasses’ book is the second in a series about American holidays, an outgrowth of their 2011 anthology What So Proudly We Hail (co-edited with Diana Schaub). Their entire ongoing project is archived at WhatSoProudlyWeHail.org, a fine and growing resource for readers interested in citizenship and civic life.
— Adam Keiper is editor of The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.