As we understand it, Presidents’ Day is intended to honor Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, not presidents in general. Some disagree, and will spend today celebrating the accomplishments of William Henry Harrison’s month-long administration, the combined four years of Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore, the non-consecutive but otherwise unremarkable terms of Grover Cleveland, and all the other presidents whose names schoolchildren struggle to remember just long enough to pass a test, but we prefer to limit our celebration to just Washington and Lincoln.
Readers of a certain age will fondly recall that Washington’s birthday was once honored with its own federal holiday, which gave federal employees a day off from work and the rest of country a day off from federal employees, and that Lincoln’s birthday was widely but unofficially celebrated as a separate holiday. That changed with the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1971, which was enacted to give the aforementioned federal employees a three-day weekend with every observance. The act moved Washington’s birthday from the day of his birth halfway to the birthday of Lincoln, intended as a gesture of respect to the Great Emancipator even though the holiday is still on the books as Washington’s Birthday.
(The use of “Presidents’ Day” or, to those less punctilious about punctuation, “Presidents Day,” was promoted by the marketing departments of large chain stores and car dealerships in order promote their sales by appealing to their customers’ affection for chief executives. The sage visages of Washington and Lincoln usually adorn the advertisements, we’ve noticed, but the businesses will likely be just as glad to sell to fans of Van Buren, Pierce, or any other presidents.)
At any rate, it is good that both Washington and Lincoln are afforded some respect on the calendar. Modern historians have largely abandoned the old warts-and-all standard of historiography in favor of just the warts, and revel in assailing the reputations of great men, yet Washington and Lincoln have thus far withstood the sneering judgments of the petty revisionists in academia. Recent graduates of American education know little of Washington except that he owned slaves, and they’re even ambivalent about the war-mongering and unapologetically capitalist Lincoln, but so long as the two are marked on the calendar one can hold out hope that future generations will someday learn more.
Our annual toast to Washington and Lincoln is not meant to be disrespectful to the other 41 men who have held the office, of course, at least not all of them. We’d be delighted to see a Ronald Reagan Day, not only for the apoplexy it would induce in our liberal friends, but also because we could realize for one more day of each year his dream of having no non-essential federal employees on the job. Warren G. Harding Day, Calvin Coolidge Day, and James K. Polk Day would be nice compensation for three underrated presidents, but one has to mete out these honors stingily, lest one run out of days and wind up like those sports teams forced to un-retire numbers.
— Bud Norman