Home > Federal, National > It’s Washington’s Birthday, Not Presidents’ Day

It’s Washington’s Birthday, Not Presidents’ Day

February 21, 2011
 February 22 is the birthday of George Washington — the man who, more than any other, made possible our republican form of government.

The third Monday in February has come to be known, wrongly, as President’s Day. America’s political leaders should take this occasion to remember Washington’s deeds, recollect his advice, and again call the holiday celebrating him by its legal name: Washington’s Birthday.

Washington biographer James Flexner called him the “indispensable man” of the American Founding. Without Washington, America would never have won our War of Independence. He played the central role in the Constitutional Convention and 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.

Washington not only rejected offers to make him king, but was one of the first leaders in world history to relinquish power voluntarily. His peaceful transfer of the presidency to John Adams in 1797 inaugurated one of America’s greatest democratic traditions.

For eight years, Washington led his small army through the rigors of war, from the defeats in New York and the daring crossing of the Delaware River to the hardships of Valley Forge and the ultimate triumph at Yorktown. Through force of character and brilliant political 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 world’s mightiest military power. And when the job was done, Washington resigned his commission and returned to his beloved Mount Vernon.

Washington was instrumental in bringing about the Constitutional Convention, and his widely publicized participation gave the resulting document a credibility and legitimacy it would otherwise have lacked. Having been immediately and unanimously elected president of the convention, he worked actively throughout the proceedings. His voting record shows his consistent support for a strong executive and defined national powers. The vast powers of the presidency, as one delegate to the Constitutional Convention 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.”

Washington wrote extensively and eloquently about the principles and purposes of the American Founding. He was a champion of religious freedom, of immigration, and of the rule of law. His most significant legacy is his Farewell Address of 1796, which ranks with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as one of the greatest documents of the Founding. The Farewell Address is best remembered for its counsel about international affairs: Washington recommended commercial relations with other nations but as few political entanglements as possible.

Often overlooked is his sage advice about the character of our political system:

  1. Uphold the Constitution. Washington reminds us that the Constitution — by which our government is carefully limited yet strong enough to defend our rights and liberties — is our strongest check against tyranny and the best bulwark of our freedom.
  2. Beware of the politics of passion. Washington was concerned about the excessive partisanship that stirs up individual passions, bringing out the worst aspects of popular government.
  3. Protect American independence. Although often remembered as an isolationist, Washington advocated an active policy of building the political, economic and physical strength for America to defy external threats and pursue its own long-term national purpose.
  4. Encourage morality and religion. Public virtue cannot be expected in a climate of private vice, Washington reminds us, and the most important source of virtue is religion and morality.

Although Washington’s Birthday was celebrated as early as 1778, Congress did not officially recognize as a national holiday until 1870. The Monday Holiday Law in 1968 moved the holiday from February 22 to the third Monday in February. Section 6103 of Title 5, United States Code, currently designates that legal federal holiday as “Washington’s Birthday.” Contrary to popular opinion, no action by Congress or order by any president has changed “Washington’s Birthday” to “President’s Day.”

Several times, legislators have introduced legislation to direct all federal government entities to refer to the holiday as George Washington’s Birthday. Better yet: the president could issue an executive order that, in one stroke of the pen, would not only enforce the law, but also remind all Americans that George Washington still deserves to be “first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

Matthew Spalding, Ph.D., director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org), is executive editor of “The Heritage Guide to the Constitution.”

Tea Party Democrats, huh?

By Mark W. Hendrickson

I have good news and bad news:  The good news is that the political ideals and values of some prominent Democrats are so right-wing that they make most Tea Party leaders seem like liberals in comparison.  The bad news is that all those right-wing Democrats belong to an earlier century and are no longer with us.

On Presidents Day, 2011, as we reflect on past presidents and chafe under the destructive policies of the incumbent, it might be hard for young Americans to realize that there have been Democratic presidents whose core beliefs included the inviolability of individual rights, the sanctity of our constitution, and the conviction that the federal government should protect citizens’ property rather than redistribute it.  In fact, though, those beliefs were the animating principles of the Democratic Party in the 1800s.
Today, it is virtually impossible to picture Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, or Grover Cleveland — all two-term Democratic presidents in the 19th century — being welcome in the modern Democratic Party or even wanting to be associated with it.  Today’s Democrats — Obama, Pelosi, Reid, et al. — haven’t modified the principles of those early Democratic presidents; rather, they have inverted, repudiated, and abandoned them.  (and we would add, twisted, foresaken, and bastardized as some other good descriptions)
For example, one of the primary tenets of Jeffersonian Democrats was their belief in small, limited government.  In 1824, Jefferson wrote, “I think, myself, that we have more machinery of government than is necessary, too many parasites living on the labor of the industrious.” If the Sage of Monticello felt that way in 1824, imagine how he would feel today! 
Distrusting Big Government, early Democrats naturally detested government debt.  Jefferson believed that debt leads to taxation, wretchedness, oppression, and servitude.  He reduced the $83 million federal debt he inherited by over one-third during his presidency, despite incurring the expenses of the Louisiana Purchase and the conflict with the Barbary pirates.  In 1824, Jackson declared government debt a “national curse.”  Old Hickory remains the only president to have paid the federal debt down to zero. Today, by contrast, Obama presides over a $1.6 trillion deficit and a $14 trillion debt that will double by 2021 if Obama gets his way.
Nineteenth Century Democrats such as them would have regarded today’s Democrats’ penchant for social engineering as un-American.  They would have rebelled against the injustice of redistributing wealth in the cynical name of “social justice” in pursuit of socialistic egalitarianism.  To achieve this goal, Democrats (with considerable collaboration from all too many Republicans) have done their best to replace the principle of an impartial and uniform rule of law with its antithesis-a transfer society comprised on a complex system of privileges.  They have rejected the traditional American sense of justice as so beautifully articulated by Andrew Jackson:
Distinctions in society will always exist under every just government. Equality of talents, of education, or of wealth cannot be produced by human institutions. In the full enjoyment of the gifts of Heaven and the fruits of superior industry, economy, and virtue, every man is equally entitled to protection by law; but when the laws undertake to add to these natural and just advantages artificial distinctions, to grant titles, gratuities and exclusive privileges, to make the rich richer and the potent more powerful, the humble members of society-the farmers, mechanics and laborers-who have neither the time nor the means of securing like favors to themselves, have a right to complain of the injustice of their government.
Rather than stamp out what Frederic Bastiat termed “legalized plunder” — privileges for the wealthy and the politically well-connected — recent generations of Democrats have democratized plunder.  They have granted privileges and bestowed trillions to labor unions, senior citizens, racial minorities, low-income individuals, etc.  As usual, two moral wrongs don’t make a right, but in this case, they have led us to the brink of national bankruptcy.
Jefferson, Jackson, and Cleveland were strict constitutionalists.  Jefferson warned against making our written constitution “a white [blank] paper by construction [i.e., sophistic, spurious, unscrupulous interpretation].” 
Jackson’s creed was:  “Democrats …favor limited state and national governments according to a strict reading of the state and federal constitutions.”  (Part of what was elided from the foregoing quote was Jackson’s opposition to a national bank — a position emphatically shared by Jefferson.  Today’s Democrats don’t even want the modern incarnation of a national bank, the Federal Reserve System, to be audited, much less abolished.) Cleveland, believing that the Constitution meant precisely what it said in plain English, resisted a huge expansion of government by vetoing a record number of spending bills.  As he put it in one veto message, “I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution…Though the people support the Government, the Government should not support the people.”
It is plain that Jeffersonian Democrats are anathema to Obama and his progressive cohorts today.   “Progressive” Democrats live by the obnoxious and unconstitutional nostrum that “the government” should support the people (meaning in practice that government takes from some to give to others, namely, their political allies).  Contemporary Democrats also believe that government can bestow additional rights on citizens, such as the right to cheap health care.  They have lost sight of the traditional American belief, so clearly stated by another Democratic president from an earlier generation, John F. Kennedy, “that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.”
Today’s Democratic party is not your grandfather’s party.  Indeed, it may well be that the most profound political transformation in our country’s history has been the one that has happened within the Democratic Party.  Today’s “progressive” Democrats are practically the polar opposite of their Jeffersonian forebears.  There is actually a silver lining in this sad report: It means that it’s almost impossible for Democrats to migrate farther away from our country’s foundational principles, and raises the possibility that the next significant ideological shift in the Democratic Party will, of necessity, be in the direction back toward their party’s (and our republic’s) founders.
That day cannot come soon enough (because right now classic liberalism is dead, and new leftist liberalism runs rampant.)  
Happy Presidents Day, everyone!
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