It has become fashionable to call the holiday that we observe today “Presidents Day,” but it’s not. Under 5 U.S.C. § 6103(a) of the Federal Code, today’s holiday is George Washington’s Birthday. It must always remain so.
This is not picking nits. It matters.
In America, we honor people not for what they are but for what they do. That’s why we do not treat the office of the presidency like other countries treat their monarchies. We are a country in which the president is a servant of the people and has only those powers that we agree in writing to allow him to have. As our founding document, the Declaration of Independence, declared to the world, “Governments are instituted among men deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
So, we do not celebrate all of the men who have served as president. Indeed, not all of those men are deserving of such adulation. Do we really wish to honor those presidents who disgraced their office, like Warren Harding, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton? Do we really wish to honor those presidents who served honorably but incompetently, like James Buchanan, Jimmy Carter, and Barack Obama? Do we really wish to honor President William Henry Harrison, who was so vain that he delivered the longest inaugural address in history outdoors in the middle of a snow storm and then died of pneumonia a month later? Would we really place Martin Luther King, Jr. ahead of George Washington in the pantheon of American heroes by giving Dr. King his own holiday but grouping Washington in with Franklin Pierce and Chester Arthur on “Presidents Day?”
No, on this day, we honor one specific man: George Washington. And we honor him not because he was a president, or even because he was our first president, but because he was the indispensable Founding Father whose leadership gave us our independence and whose principled humility secured our democracy. To put it bluntly, if there had been no George Washington, there would be no United States of America.
George Washington did not ask to be the leader of the Continental Army. He was asked to assume that role by the Continental Congress, and he accepted the job believing he was not qualified. He led forces who had virtually no military training against the greatest military force in the world. And he kept his army united and persevered by inspiring the loyalty of his troops through the sheer force of his character.
At the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, when King George III learned that Washington was going to voluntarily resign his commission to an essentially powerless Congress, he is reported as having called Washington “the greatest man in the world.” For once, King George was right.
Eight years after the American victory in the Revolutionary War, and after the failure of our first attempt to form a federal government under the Articles of Confederation, our Founders drafted the greatest document ever to be written by the hand of man: The Constitution of the United States. And despite the many political and philosophical differences that divided the leaders of the various states, George Washington commanded the respect and support of every leader of every state and was unanimously called on to serve as our first president.
Having assumed the presidency with unanimous support, Washington could have been king. Monarchy was the only form of government that the Founders had ever seen in action. A government truly emanating from the consent of the governed, as nice as it appeared on paper, had never been attempted and was believed by many to be unworkable. But Washington believed in government of, by, and for the people, and he refused monarchical powers, insisting on limiting his powers strictly to those specifically enumerated in the new Constitution. And after reluctantly agreeing to offer himself for a second term, again being elected unanimously, and again serving with honor and distinction, he did something unprecedented in human history: He voluntarily gave up his power and handed it over to another man elected by the people.
George Washington gave us our country and set the precedents that secured our constitutional democracy and that endure through today. No other president – indeed no other person – in our history comes anywhere close to the legacy of George Washington or is more deserving of the appreciation and admiration of the American people. And it is for that reason that we honor George Washington – and not the office of the presidency or any other president – on this day.
This column was originally published on my former political blog, Ken’s Colloquium, on February 21, 2011, and it was later republished at Bearing Drift. It is my tradition to repost it every year on George Washington’s birthday (observed). Minor revisions have been made in repostings.
Author: Ken Falkenstein
Ken Falkenstein brings a wealth of experience and expertise in public affairs to Committed Conservative, having worked in all three branches of the government and at every level of government, federal, state, and local. Ken served in the U.S. Army in the last years of the Cold War as a Russian linguist for military intelligence and the NSA. After leaving the Army, he earned his degree in Secondary Education from Old Dominion University, where he also wrote a popular column in the student newspaper called Ken’s Colloquium.
Upon graduation, Ken worked as a Legislative Aide to two Republican members of the Virginia House of Delegates. Ken also served as Corresponding Secretary of the Young Republican Federation of Virginia, managed several successful political campaigns, and ran governmental affairs for the Tidewater Association of Realtors.
In 1995, Ken moved to Washington to serve as a Legislative Assistant to Sen. John Warner (R-VA). While working for Sen. Warner, Ken attended law school at night, earning his J.D. cum laude from the George Mason University School of Law (n/k/a The Antonin Scalia Law School). Since that time, Ken has practiced as a civil litigation attorney, including serving for three years as an Associate City Attorney for the City of Virginia Beach, Virginia. Ken previously was a contributor to the highly-regarded political blog Bearing Drift and was a weekly co-host of The Steve Batton Radio Show.
In 2016, Ken ran unsuccessfully for the Virginia Beach School Board. Ken is also a former President of the Down Syndrome Association of Hampton Roads, and he is currently a member of the Board of Directors of Congregation Beth Chaverim in Virginia Beach.
Ken lives in Virginia Beach with his wife, Kim, and three sons, Adam, Dylan, and Joshua, who has Down syndrome and autism. Ken’s writing and activism is motivated and informed primarily by his concern for his kids’ future.