A defense of ‘Presidents Day’
For a long time, I was one of those annoying people who, when you wished him a “Happy Presidents Day,” would solemnly inform you the holiday’s official name, as set forth in the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1971, is “Washington’s Birthday (Observed).”
Yes, I really was that petty.
I might also have pointed out, as you continued to stare blankly at me, that a holiday celebrating presidents in general didn’t make much sense. Sure, there have been some presidents who are generally regarded as worthy of adulation; these are the folks who have monuments built to them. We put them on money, carve their faces into the sides of mountains or have costumed incarnations of them run footraces at sporting events.
Not everyone is a fan of all of these guys (and they are all guys…at least, for the time being). But at least you can see why people might want to have a holiday for those exceptional presidents.
There are also some presidents who, while less well-known, were still consequential for the course of the nation or who otherwise are worthy of a few anecdotes once a year. I’m personally a fan of Chester A. Arthur, for example.
But just as there are some presidents who have been very, very good, some have been real stinkers.
John Tyler, who ascended from the vice presidency to the top job when William Henry Harrison died, has the distinction of having sought and been rejected for the nomination of both major political parties. He also rejected the United States in favor of the Confederacy, ending his life as a member of the Confederate Congress.
Other presidents have overseen the burning of the White House, the dismemberment of the country, financial crises and wrongheaded wars.
And then there was Jimmy Carter, who is history’s greatest monster.
Celebrating Presidents Day is particularly fraught this year, as recent controversies over how we acknowledge and remember our history have touched even some of the big names of presidents past. At Princeton University, students have protested the school’s commemoration of Woodrow Wilson (whom, as a good conservative, I’ve disliked since before it was cool).
Several state Democratic parties have chosen to rename their annual Jefferson-Jackson fundraising dinners because those presidents’ views and actions on topics like race, slavery and Indian removal no longer seem worthy of veneration. There is also an ongoing campaign to remove Jackson from the $20 bill, for similar reasons.
So the case against Presidents Day is pretty straightforward. Is there a counterargument?
Well, sort of. To begin with, the overly technical point about the official name of the holiday being “Washington’s Birthday (Observed)” is, while technically correct, also technically incomplete. That’s the name of the holiday in federal law. But the name of the holiday varies considerably at the state level.
Here in Texas, for example, the name of the holiday is President’s Day. In Michigan, it’s President’s Day and in Nebraska, President’s Day.
Other states still celebrate Washington, specifically, either alone or with friends. Ohio, for example, calls the holiday Washington-Lincoln Day. In Alabama, it’s Washington and Jefferson’s Birthday, while in Arkansas it’s George Washington’s Birthday and Daisey Gatson Bates Day.
California takes the prize for creativity, with the holiday officially known as The Third Monday in February.
The truth is that California is probably the closest to the lived experience of most Americans. As with most holidays that always fall on a Monday, the real meaning of Presidents Day is: three-day weekend.
Whether it’s because I’ve mellowed with age or sold out to the man, I no longer correct people when they say it’s Presidents Day. If it serves as nothing but than an excuse to watch Abraham Lincoln team up with Captain Kirk to battle aliens, it’s probably worth it.
And if it gives me an excuse to talk about Chester A. Arthur, that’s good, too.