This coming Monday (February 16, 2009) is Presidents Day. This is the federal holiday that honours George Washington (born February 22) and Abraham Lincoln (born February 12).
Certainly these two men are worthy of remembrance. Washington was instrumental in the founding of this nation. The independence declared by Adams and Jefferson meant little if not defended in the field by Washington. Washington's prowess as a general may be debatable, but he indisputably accompolished an amazing feat. Largely through force of will; he was able to keep a small rag-tag army in the field against what could only be described as the super power of the 18th century; maintain morale; and prevail despite shortages of food, clothing, weapons, and other equipment. Under our current Constitution, Washington was the first President of the United States. But more than being first, Washington set an example for the others to follow. Washington's example is his great gift to our nation. In the history of mankind, generals who lead revolutions usually seize power (Caesar, Napoleon). After victory at Yorktown, Washington resigned his commission, disbanded his army, acknowledged the political supremacy of the Continental Congress and went home to Mount Vernon. For this, King George III called him, "the greatest man in the world." The American Revolution was fought for the principle that no one man should rule with absolute power. Washington could have destroyed that principle and ruled as a popular, perhaps even just, king, but he did not. After the Constitution was ratified, Washington was concerned about the powers invested in the Presidency and therefore limited himself to two terms. Again, he voluntarily relinquished power that no one would have begrudged him. In so doing, he set a precendent that every future President followed until FDR. Regardless of whether or not you believe FDR's legacy is a positive one, certainly a number of his supporters must have taken pause at his virtual lock on the Presidency because after FDR the Constitution was ammended to enshrine Washington's wisdom into law and limit Presidents to two terms.
Lincoln was arguably the most able President in the history of this country. No President has been handled a greater challenge than civil war. Lincoln's courage and fortitude held this nation together. His actions are not without controversy. His means may have been, at times, questionable. But, his legacy is a United States that remained united and whole and cleansed of the stain of slavery. Emancipation set the ground work for people of colour ultimately to share in the Jeffersonian ideal that all are created equal.
Why then do I hate Presidents Day? When I was a child, the holidays were separate: Washington's birthday and Lincoln's birthday. I can understand the desire to consolidate the two rather than have two holidays so close together, but the problem I have with President's Day is that in renaming it, the great legacy bestowed on our country by these two men gets lost. It should be a day for remembering the great gifts of Washington and Lincoln to our nation, not a day for buying cheap mattresses. Invariably, use of the term Presidents Day conjures up images of Mount Rushmore and other Presidents. We as a nation should be grateful for the contributions of Washington and Lincoln, not reminded of the irrelevance of Millard Fillmore, the corruption of Richard Nixon, the lechery of Bill Clinton, or the incompetence of George W. Bush. If it has to be one holiday, why not Washington-Lincoln Day, instead of Presidents Day?