Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Presidents' Day: Washington Rules; Lincoln Loses

Yesterday, as workers and people who like to check their snail-mail know, was President's Day.  Or was it?  Is this a trick question about the placement of the apostrophe after the final "s"?  Isn't Presidents' Day an amalgam for the two presidents we used to celebrate separately: Abraham Lincoln and George Washington?

I drove by my local elementary school, and on its signboard since last week was: February 21, Happy Birthday, Washington!  When you search "Presidents' Day" on Wikipedia, you're re-directed to Washington's Birthday.  The website whitehouse.gov has info on the presidents, and even a slideshow; if you search "Presidents' Day," you get 4,644 results, but about the holiday--nada.

Turns out I've been making a common mistake. There's no Presidents' Day, and it's not a snub to Lincoln, nor is it an indiscriminate salute to all presidents, no matter their competence or favor.  Seems "Presidents' Day" is more of a commercial invention to lure shoppers on their day off.

Apparently, states have the option to observe federal holidays or not, and some chose to have a separate birthday celebration for Abraham Lincoln, as well as George Washington. When I was a kid in California, we got February 12 and 22 off school, to celebrate Lincoln and Washington, respectively, on their birthdays.  OK, it's true that Washington was born on February 11, 1732, because at his birth, the Julian calendar was used. When the colonies switched to the Gregorian calendar in 1752, his birthday became February 22.

In any case, seeds for the demise of recognition for individual presidents were sown with the 1968 Uniform Holidays Bill, which stationed most federal holidays on Mondays.  Washington kept his day, but because it became the third Monday in February, it could never be his actual birthday, the 22nd.

Lincoln? Well, he never had a federal holiday, anyway.  And when Martin Luther King provided Americans a day off in January, his fate was sealed.  Workers now had MLK day in January, Washington's Birthday in February, spring vacation in March, Easter in April, Memorial Day in May...

So Monday was officially Washington's birthday, according to the federal calendar.  I'm happy with that, because he was indeed "the father of our country," and never had his own children to fete him.  A new USA Today poll shows Americans have short memories when it comes to presidential achievements.  Asked "Who do you regard as as the greatest United States president?" respondents named Ronald Reagan by a significant margin (19%) followed by Abraham Lincoln (14%), Bill Clinton (13%), John F. Kennedy (11%) and George Washington (10%). Clinton's huge popularity is astonishing to me, given that he was impeached, but perhaps most surprising was that Barack Obama, after just two controversial years in office, garnered 7th place, with 5%.

All presidents are not equally worthy of honor, and I'm confident that historians have a better vantage than the public.  Americans could use some history lessons, as well as better skill at evaluating leaders' accomplishments. But I'm relieved that Monday's holiday still commemorates one man, and that he is deserving of reverence as well as department-store sales.

1 comment:

  1. Good points, I had thought these two presidents had melded into one birthday holiday. Just more obscurity for the nations past, I suppose. Enjoyed your blog, I stumbled across it searching for that dragon mother. very funny.