What is Presidents Day?
When I was a kid, we would always get two holidays in February. We would get one day off in honor of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, and about a week or so later, we would get another holiday in honor of George Washington. This was always cool for me because my birthday is one day away from Lincoln’s, so I rarely had to go to school on my special day. Apparently, some schools still give kids a couple of days off that coincide roughly with these presidential birthdays. My kids, for example, had no school today and this past Friday, so they are almost getting a full-fledged vacation out of it. The holiday currently honored, however, is generally referred to as Presidents Day, indicating, apparently, that we no longer single out Lincoln and Washington individually.
So what are we celebrating on this thing called Presidents Day? The timing of the day, along with the frequent pictures of Lincoln and Washington hanging in schools and on advertisements for three-day sales, still puts the emphasis on those two big names. If any presidents deserve to be honored, those two would be a good place to start. Washington, in addition to being the first president, also happened to hold our army together under some difficult circumstances as commander of the Continental Army during the American Revolution. Then, unlike many other beloved generals throughout history, he showed no desire to seize power as some form of a dictator, and even as President, he was careful to restrict himself to Constitutional guidelines. In fact, he had to be talked into running for President in the first place. Lincoln, of course, led our nation through its only Civil War, and in the process of winning that war, played a major role in getting slavery abolished. Clearly, these two big presidential names amassed impressive records and deserve to be celebrated.
But in naming the holiday President’s Day, are we also required to celebrate some of the not so famous and accomplished presidents in American history? In my mind, some of these men don’t exactly deserve to be honored. I could name a few names, but I don’t want to offend the fans of Warren Harding, James Buchanan, Herbert Hoover, Andrew Johnson, and a few others who were less than stellar. Of course, this holiday may not require us to celebrate all of the individual presidents. Instead, we may just be honoring the whole existence of a position called President, celebrating this aspect of a Constitutional system that has worked so well. The problem is that the holiday is only singling out one branch of government, reinforcing a mistaken impression among the general public that the President is the government, and all things good or bad are the direct result of him. If we are to be consistent, we should have a Supreme Court day and a Congress day. Then, if we want to really milk these political celebrations, we could break up Congress day into House and Senate days. Maybe we could even get theoretical and have a “Checks and Balances, “Division of Power,” or “Federalism” Day. Ultimately, we may be able to create a situation where public employees and schoolchildren have a whole mess of days off, as we have holidays honoring state legislators, governors, mayors, county superintendents, and God knows who or what else.
Unfortunately, such a glut of holidays could end up undermining the very political systems that we are celebrating. After all, nothing much will get done during those many days when every political official under the sun is recognized. It could, however, stimulate the economy due to the continuous three-day sales that we have, and if some of these special days are placed during the summer season, it will certainly stimulate the purchase of all things related to barbeques. Also imagine the stimulus to local tourism as people take off to Vegas, lakes, and other places of amusement. These benefits, however, might still be offset by the costs. At the moment, the public employees who get more of these special holidays off than private sector workers are not particularly popular. We public sector workers are part of the evil big government that is apparently dragging our nation into the toilet. So maybe this push for additional holidays needs to wait until the fiscal situation improves (if it ever does).
Or then again, what if we counteracted these anti-government impulses by having holidays that celebrate anti-government conservatives. In a recent survey, I saw that respondents ranked Ronald Reagan as a greater President than Washington, Lincoln or anyone else. (Clearly, this survey did not involve a whole lot of historians.) There are also organizations out there whose sole purpose in life is to get things named after Reagan. Since we just honored the 100th anniversary of his birth, the time might be ripe. And whether you like him or not, you can’t really argue with another day off.