While much of the country will spend today observing Presidents Day, those of us in the northwestern corner of the contiguous United States prefer to think of it as Washington’s Birthday.
That is, of course, the legal name of the federal holiday, although some have attempted to hijack the momentous occasion by lumping our first president — and our state’s namesake — with any manner of lesser leaders with the more egalitarian “Presidents Day.”
Does Millard Fillmore really deserve a national holiday? Could we observe a William Henry Harrison minute in honor of the 30 days he spent in office? Should we honor John Tyler, who ascended to the presidency in 1841 yet has two living grandsons?
No, we Washingtonians will honor George Washington while throwing in a nod to Abraham Lincoln, acknowledging that most people consider the holiday to be an honorific for both presidents. But the day officially remains known as Washington’s Birthday, although his actual birthday falls on Tuesday this year.
As holidays go, this one doesn’t typically warrant anything more than sleeping late and puttering around the house. There are no parades, and it’s too cold outside for a barbecue. But that shouldn’t diminish the importance of the day. Because the presidency and the tenuous balance of power that accompanies it has been crucial to the success of the United States’ experiment in representative government.
As President George W. Bush said in 2007, on the 275th anniversary of Washington’s birth: “America’s path to freedom was long and it was hard. And the outcome was really never certain. Honoring George Washington’s life requires us to remember the many challenges that he overcame, and the fact that American history would have turned out very differently without his steady leadership.”
Bush continued: “George Washington accepted the presidency because the office needed him, not because he needed the office.”
Washington was needed to judiciously define the power of the presidency in the burgeoning nation, and his humility was vital in setting the boundaries for a government that could withstand the test of time. He rejected the notion of being crowned King George, understanding that a monarchy would be destined to fail and would do nothing more than create centuries of instability. The fact that he had no party affiliation seems positively quaint in this era of contentious politics.
As recent events throughout the Middle East have demonstrated, perhaps the greatest accomplishment of American government is the fact that for 222 years we have enjoyed the peaceful transfer of power. Washington deserves much of the credit for that.
That’s not to say that Washington was the nation’s greatest president. It is impossible to delineate the accomplishments of Washington, Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Teddy Roosevelt, and Thomas Jefferson. They were men of different callings facing different challenges in very different times, each of them altering the course of history in their own way. Lincoln, for example, preserved the union, which ranks pretty darn high on the list of presidential accomplishments.
But for those of us in Washington state, we lean toward the one who was first. His likeness, after all, appears on our state flag and our state seal, creating a certain kinship between the man and a state that wasn’t admitted to the union until 90 years after his death.
We live in the only state named for a president — although Louisiana was named in honor of King Louis XIV of France, who was not known for his humility or for his wariness of monarchies. No, we prefer Washington’s style, and we think it’s worth remembering today.