Why Presidents' Day should focus more on George Washington

A historical painting of President George Washington
President George Washington
Image Credit: Creative Commons Licence

Presidents' Day in 21st century America tends to focus on sales for mattresses and household furniture; a holiday that's become "vanilla" from its intended roots, according to Gleaves Whitney, director of the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies at Grand Valley. 

Whitney said the original holiday was intended to celebrate the birthday of the United States' first president, George Washington, but the influence of other presidents (and the timing of their birthdays, including Abraham Lincoln, whose birthday was February 12) have mixed messages about the meaning of the federal holiday. 

"The holiday originally celebrated Washington's birthday, not all of the presidents as a whole," Whitney said. 

The day became a federal holiday in the 1880s, but Whitney said the holiday has lost its meaning over time. He said Washington's history as a slave owner complicated and influenced the impact of the holiday, but noted that Washington should be remembered for his legacy of turning power back to the people -- the notable impact of his presidency as a whole. 

"Washington was a truly great president for many reasons, and his legacy was that he was known for not seeking out more power," Whitney said. "Washington should be remembered for his desire to ensure the rule of law and his turning back of power to the Congress even in situations where they were begging him to take on the role of a king," Whitney said. 

Washington, being the only president in American history to be elected unanimously twice by the electoral college, should hold a special place in our collective hearts, Whitney said. 

"He was offered to be made a general for life, to be made a major power player in American politics for life, and he turned that power back time and time again, insisting on the rule of law and following the framework of a republican constitution where the power was delegated to the people and their representatives," Whitney said. 

So while Presidents' Day may have lost a good deal of its cache since Washington's inauguration in 1789, Whitney said Washington still deserves to be the focal point of an oft-overlooked federal holiday.

"The precedent he set of defending the republican constitution and insisting on obeying the rule of law has defined significant portions of American history," Whitney said.