February 19, 2007
George Washington Day
Note: This is a reprint of an item I originally posted on February 17, 2003.
Today America pays tribute to its presidents. Unfortunately that group includes many lackluster chief executives, including the politically inept (James Buchanan, Ulysess Grant, Woodrow Wilson and Jimmy Carter) and the morally inept (John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Warren Harding, Lyndon Johnson, and Bill Clinton). These presidents are not worthy of a holiday-caliber commemoration.
Moreover, honoring all the presidents collectively on one day renders the holiday meaningless. That's why Congress should scrap Presidents Day and replace it with a holiday honoring the one person indispensable in the forging of the United States: George Washington.
As the Continental Army's commander-in-chief in the American Revolution, the most influential voice calling for a Constitutional Convention (over which he presided) and the first president of the United States, Washington occupies the center stage of American history. But more important than what Washington did is what he did not do. Though he would have had the military and popular support to do so, he firmly refused absolute power by explicitly dismissing suggestions that he make himself America's king.
In May of 1782 — less than a year after the British surrendered to Washington at Yorktown — the Continental Army had yet to be paid by the new (and largely powerless) Congress established under the Articles of Confederation. In an attempt to resolve the issue of compensation, Colonel Lewis Nicola wrote his commander-in-chief expressing the opinion of many in the Continental Army that Washington make himself king of the United States. Washington's indignant reply reveals not only his exemplary character but his steadfast commitment to limited republican government:
Sir: With a mixture of great surprise and astonishment I have read with attention the Sentiments you have submitted to my perusal. Be assured Sir, no occurrence in the course of the War, has given me more painful sensations than your information of there being such ideas existing in the Army as you have expressed, and I must view with abhorrence, and reprehend with severety. For the present, the communication of them will rest in my own bosom, unless some further agitation of the matter, shall make a disclosure necessary.
I am much at a loss to conceive what part of my conduct could have given encouragement to an address which to me seems big with the greatest mischiefs that can befall my Country. If I am not deceived in the knowledge of myself, you could not have found a person to whom your schemes are more disagreeable; at the same time in justice to my own feelings I must add, that no Man possesses a more sincere wish to see ample justice done to the Army than I do, and as far as my powers and influence, in a constitutional way extend, they shall be employed to the utmost of my abilities to effect it, should there be any occasion. Let me conjure you then, if you have any regard for your Country, concern for yourself or posterity, or respect for me, to banish these thoughts from your Mind, and never communicate, as from yourself, or any one else, a sentiment of the like Nature. — May 22, 1782
As the nation's first president, Washington established presidential precedents and traditions to which most of his successors adhere. He defined the office. In doing so he was guided by one objective, which he explained in his Farewell Address of 1796:
With me, a predominant motive has been to endeavour to gain time to our country to settle and mature its yet recent institutions, and to progress without interruption, to that degree of strength and consistency, which is necessary to give it, humanly speaking, the command of its own fortunes.
Washington's policy triumphed. And today the United States has "the command of its own fortunes."
America should show its gratitude and respect by designating George Washington's birthday — February 22 — a national holiday.
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