On Monday, Feb. 16, Americans celebrate Presidents Day, a national holiday of little significance.
The day intended to honor our commanders in chief, past and present, has been reduced to a three-day weekend best known for its car and mattress sales.
The holiday that inspired Presidents Day—George Washington’s birthday—was once a national holiday of far greater importance. Each year, Americans honored their first and finest president on his actual birthday, Feb. 22. We sent George Washington’s Birthday greeting cards, held parades, and participated in events and ceremonies to show respect and gratitude to the man whose courage and fortitude were critical to our nation’s founding.
In 1968, this tradition changed as Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. This piece of legislation moved the observances of certain holidays, including Washington’s Birthday, along with Columbus Day, and Memorial Day, from meaningful dates to specific Mondays, creating more three-day weekends for federal workers.
As a result, we no longer dedicate a day to honor the memory of our most important founding father. Instead we mark the third Monday in February as “Presidents Day.” We lump Washington together with the likes of James K. Polk, Millard Fillmore, Chester A. Arthur, and other men who have held the office, but fail to hold the same place of crucial importance in our American narrative.
Surely George Washington deserves better.
In light of this, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association—the non-profit organization that owns and operates Washington’s northern Virginia estate—urges communities around the country to bring back the tradition of remembering and reflecting upon the contributions of the "Father of Our Country."
And those contributions are many. It was Washington who spent two winters here in Jockey Hollow and led a zealous army to victory in a revolution that seemed unwinnable. Instead of using his glory on the battlefield to advance his personal power, he resigned his commission to return to farm life at Mount Vernon.
When unanimously elected president, he again answered his country’s call, leaving loved ones and cherished home behind. As president, he acted with careful intent, recognizing that his decisions would establish precedents. Perhaps most significantly, he showed the unparalleled wisdom to step away from seizing absolute power, ever mindful of protecting the Constitution and ensuring the success of this great democratic experiment.
When his birthday was celebrated as a national holiday, Americans were reminded that this great nation did not just “happen” by chance. They paid homage to a man who risked everything in order to create our great nation.
This appreciation of the past is essential to the formation of our future. The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association passionately believes in the importance of educating our citizens, particularly our children, so that they understand and appreciate our nation’s remarkable founding. In the past year, we have taken significant steps to counter the decline of history education in the classroom by rapidly expanding our digital presence.
In 2014, we launched the newly redesigned mountvernon.org, loaded with interactive features, including an immersive new virtual tour of Mount Vernon that allows visitors to explore George Washington’s home from any location in the world. We also introduced a high-quality digital presentation documenting Washington’s heroics at the Battle of Yorktown.
To accomplish each of these endeavors, and to maintain and operate the historic estate itself – as we have for more than 150 years—we rely exclusively on private funds. We are grateful to patriotic Americans in New Jersey who provide generous support. Thank you and we hope others will join us
We hope that families, teachers, community leaders and concerned citizens in New Jersey will grasp the opportunity to honor George Washington by learning and sharing more about this great man on his actual birthday. Many people will never know that Washington was a deeply textured individual; an entrepreneur who operated the most successful whiskey distillery of his day; a family man who raised step children and grandchildren, loved dogs and a gracious host known for dancing all night.
If you can’t travel to Washington’s beautiful Virginia estate in person, we invite you to visit mountvernon.org and discover something new and surprising about the man we call our greatest founding father.
George Washington is no mere president, to be jumbled together with Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan. He is the standard bearer, the precedent setter. He is, to use the words of historian James Flexner, the “indispensable man.” Let’s look for a better way to celebrate our most important hero than by scheduling his birthday over a three-day weekend.
If you share our belief in the importance of Washington’s legacy, we urge you to contact your Congressional representatives, state, and community leaders to identify ways in which we Americans can better honor his memory. He deserves to remain first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen.
Vice Regent for New Jersey of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association
[This article appered in the Observer-Tribune and other papers.]