Today is a federal holiday that most Americans erroneously call “Presidents’ Day.” The official name, per designation by Congress, is George Washington’s Birthday. There is good reason for the distinction.
Whatever you think of Chester Arthur, William Henry Harrison, Andrew Johnson or Richard Nixon, the American people have never designated a national holiday to celebrate their tenure in the nation’s highest office. The men who have been chosen to preside over the federal government (not over the nation; they are Presidents, not kings) are a group of many mediocrities, a few scoundrels, some total incompetents, and a handful of statesmen. To call this day “Presidents’ Day” is to lump all of them together as equally deserving of the nation’s praise and warm remembrance.
Why celebrate Washington’s birthday separately? Without him, we would not be Americans.
Washington was a man, not a saint. He was famously hot-tempered; he could be opportunistic and vain; and he was not above scapegoating others for his failures. He also was patriotic, brave, loyal and uncommonly wise. From the 1760s through the 1790s, Washington managed to play a pivotal role in every stage of the road to independence and nationhood.
He was one of the first men of influence to advocate independence. He held the Continental Army, and with it the colonies, together during the war, and when it was over (thanks to the French Navy) he disbanded the army and went home. When the Articles of Confederation proved too weak to hold the nation together, Washington lent his name to the movement to form a new government, presided over the Constitutional Convention, helped win ratification of the new Constitution, and agreed to serve as head of the new government though he was convinced he would not live long enough to see his farm again. After two terms in which he strove to leave the fragile new government strong enough to withstand threats both external and internal, he again retired to run his long-neglected estate.
Today we take Washington’s republican self-sacrifice for granted. At the time, it made him a legend. Near the end of the war, King George III asked Benjamin West, an American painter in London, what Washington would do if the Americans won. “Oh, they say he will return to his farm,” West replied. The king who was about to lose his empire was doubtful. “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”
He did. And he was.