Alvin S. Felzenberg: It’s Not ‘Presidents Day’ ’

Roundup: Talking About History

[Alvin S. Felzenberg is the author of The Leaders We Deserved (and a Few We Didn’t): Rethinking the Presidential Rating Game.]

We are once again celebrating the nation’s most nondescript holiday. Its legal name remains “Washington’s Birthday.” You would not know that from the ads hawking cars and linen, and from public responses to surveys asking which American president was the greatest. (In a recent Gallup poll, Kennedy, Clinton, and Reagan all placed ahead of Washington in the “hearts of their countrymen.”)

The shift in the public mind over whom we are honoring on this holiday, like so many other bad ideas, originated in the Nixon administration. The year before he took office, Congress decreed that the February holiday, along with several others, be observed on a Monday. The idea was to give their constituents several three-day weekends. Until then, February 22 (traditionally Washington’s Birthday), like July 4 (Independence Day), and November 11 (Veterans Day, originally “Armistice Day”) was a date Americans had revered.

When Congress finally got around to declaring Washington’s birthday a national holiday, at the end of the nineteenth century, it was following a local custom that began in 1777, when soldiers in the Continental Army began celebrating the birthday of their head general. Cities and towns held pageants and parades. Children competed in essay contests in which they considered Washington’s place in history, what they might learn from his example, and how he might handle problems in their day. The Commission that marked the bicentennial of Washington’s birthday took on, as one of its projects, distributing reproductions of Gilbert Stuart’s famous (“dollar bill”) portrait to schoolrooms all across the country....

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