Can you name the holiday that falls on the third Monday in February?
Like most Americans, you probably think it’s "Presidents' Day." Every desk calendar and car sale ad seems to confirm it. So it may surprise you to learn that its legal name still is "Washington’s Birthday."
The law establishing the holiday never has been changed. For all practical purposes, of course, his day has been forfeited to convenience. We celebrate it on the third Monday in February, rather than on the actual day, Feb. 22, and we call it "Presidents' Day" so we can lump it in with Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, Feb. 12, and pay tribute to all presidents — good, bad and mediocre.
That’s why every year legislation is introduced in Congress that would direct all federal agencies to refer to the holiday as "George Washington's Birthday" and return Washington to his rightful place above all other presidents.
That’s a step in the right direction. A better step would be for President Bush to issue an executive order that not only would enforce current law but remind Americans that Washington still deserves to be "first in the hearts of his countrymen."
If anyone in American history deserves to have a day celebrated in his honor, it’s Washington.
He led the army that won independence from the British, refused to become the king of his new land, led the Constitutional Convention that gave us the world’s pre-eminent government, and then served as the first president. And his departure from office marked one of the first peaceful transfers of power in world history.
Washington biographer James Flexner called him the "indispensable man" of the American founding. In his roles as the head of the Constitutional Convention and as our first president, he set the precedents that define what it means to be a constitutional executive: strong and energetic, aware of the limits of authority, but guarding the prerogatives of office.
Through force of character and skillful leadership, Washington transformed an underfunded militia into a capable force that, although never able to take the British army head-on, outwitted and defeated the mightiest military power in the world. After that, Washington resigned his commission and returned to his beloved Mount Vernon.
His participation in the Constitutional Convention gave the resulting document a credibility it otherwise would have lacked. Unanimously elected president of the Convention, he worked actively to support a strong executive and defined national powers. The vast powers of the presidency, one delegate wrote, would not have been made as great "had not many of the members cast their eyes towards General Washington as president; and shaped their ideas of the powers to be given to a president by their opinions of his virtue."
In Washington’s extensive writings about the principles and purposes of the American founding, he championed religious freedom, immigration and the rule of law. His greatest legacy is his Farewell Address, which ranks with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution among the great documents of the founding.
Washington called the Constitution our strongest check against tyranny and the best bulwark of our freedom. He warned us to guard against oppositions to lawful authority and those that seek to circumvent the rule of law. He also warned against the politics of passion.
Partisan spirit finds its roots in human nature, he said, but it should not dominate politics to the exclusion of deliberation, persuasion and reason.
Although remembered by some as an isolationist, Washington recommended that America build political, economic and physical strength sufficient to defy external threats and pursue its own long-term national purpose. He urged that liberty — not conquest — be the objective of our international relations and commerce and be America’s primary means for acquiring goods and dealing with the world.
No one did more to put America on the path to success than did Washington. No one did more to assure a government with sufficient power to function but sufficient limits to allow freedom to flourish. No one walked away from power with more dignity, conducted himself with more grace or did more to assure the prosperous society we enjoy today.
Which is why no one deserves to have a holiday that bears his own name more than George Washington.
Matthew Spalding is director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).
Matthew Spalding is associate vice president and dean of educational programs at Hillsdale College’s Kirby Center in Washington, D.C.