Monday, February 20, 2017

Presidents' Day

For many members of my generation, February was once a wonderful month with not one, but two public holidays – Lincoln’s Birthday on February 12 and Washington’s Birthday on February 22. In those days, those were real holidays, when schools and most businesses would be closed, unlike today when “holidays” are largely excuses for sales and for a frenzy of shopping and other activities utterly unrelated to what the holiday is ostensibly celebrating.

When George Washington was born in the then British colony of Virginia, it was February 11, 1731, since the British Empire at that time still followed the Julian calendar. In the 18th century, the Julian calendar was already 11 days behind the Gregorian calendar. (According to the Gregorian calendar, already adopted in 1582 in Catholic Europe, the day George Washington was born was actually February 22, 1732). Finally, in 1752, Protestant Britain belatedly switched to the Gregorian calendar. In the process, it adjusted its New Year from March 25 to January 1. So Julian February 11, 1731, became Gregorian February 22, 1732. 

In the 19th century, Washington’s Birthday became a legal holiday in the United States and has remained so ever since. In 1971, however, the Uniform Holiday Act moved the holiday to the 3rd Monday in February - part of a general contemporary tendency to deplete our civic holidays of their actual meaning and to turn them into excuses for long weekends. Although the federal holiday is still officially “Washington’s Birthday,” since the 1980s it has unofficially become widely known as "Presidents’ Day," since in most jurisdictions it replaced the Lincoln’s Birthday holiday as well as Washington’s.

Although deprived of a proper holiday and the opportunity which that holiday used to provide for Americans to learn about and appreciate Washington, his legacy remains as relevant for us today as it was when he wrote his famous “Farewell Address” in 1796. 

In that address, Washington warned especially against the dangers of extreme partisanship: 

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.

In that same address, Washington also offered some especially apt wisdom about the role of religion is civic life: 

Of all the dispositions and habits, which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and Citizens. The mere Politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. … And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect, that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

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