Presidents’ Day 2018

Stephen DeAngelis

February 19, 2018

Today Americans celebrate Presidents’ Day even though the official name of the holiday remains George Washington’s birthday. Although Washington’s Gregorian calendar birthday is 22 February, he was born on 11 February 1732 according to the Julian calendar in use at the time. The holiday honoring him was moved to the third Monday in February as part of 1971’s Uniform Monday Holiday Act so that people could enjoy more three-day holiday weekends. Abraham Lincoln is also generally honored on this day since his birthday also falls in February (on the 12th to be precise).

One little-known tradition, outside of Washington, DC, associated with Washington’s Birthday is the annual reading of his farewell address in the Senate of the United States. The tradition was started by Tennessee Senator Andrew Johnson who introduced the petition in the Senate. At the time, 22 February 1862, the country was embroiled in the civil war. Johnson wrote, “In view of the perilous condition of the country, I think the time has arrived when we should recur back to the days, the times, and the doings of Washington and the patriots of the Revolution, who founded the government under which we live.”[1] According the history of the Senate:

“Early in 1888 — the centennial year of the Constitution’s ratification — the Senate recalled the ceremony of 1862 and had its presiding officer read the Address on February 22. Within a few years, the Senate made the practice an annual event. Every year since 1896, the Senate has observed Washington’s Birthday by selecting one of its members, alternating parties, to read the 7,641-word statement in legislative session. Delivery generally takes about 45 minutes. In 1985, Florida Senator Paula Hawkins tore through the text in a record-setting 39 minutes, while in 1962, West Virginia Senator Jennings Randolph, savoring each word, consumed 68 minutes. “

In today’s divisive political atmosphere, senators would do well to once again savor some of Washington’s words. George Washington’s Mount Vernon website paraphrases Washington’s Farewell address this way:

“He stressed the importance of the Union that bonded all Americans together and provided for their freedom and prosperity. He reminded them that the ‘independence and liberty’ the nation currently enjoyed was the result of the ‘common dangers, sufferings, and successes’ they had experienced together in the American Revolution and early years of the republic. To safeguard their hard-won system of republican government in a federal union, the country had to remain united. He cautioned against three interrelated dangers that threatened to destroy the Union: regionalism, partisanship, and foreign entanglements. He warned his countrymen not to let regional loyalties overwhelm national attachments: ‘The name of American … must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations.’ At this time, many Americans primarily identified with their state or region, but Washington reminded the citizenry not to allow such attachments to divide them, lest ‘designing men’ convince them that differing local interests made the Union unworkable or unnecessary. In particular, Washington feared that geographic identities would serve as the foundation for the development of political parties. Indeed, this process had already begun with the emergence of the New England Federalists and Southern Democratic-Republicans. While we currently view partisanship as inseparable from the American political process, in the early republic, most condemned parties as divisive, disruptive, and the tools of demagogues seeking power. ‘Factionalism,’ as contemporaries called it, encouraged the electorate to vote based on party loyalty rather than the common good. Washington feared that partisanship would lead to a ‘spirit of revenge’ in which party men would not govern for the good of the people, but only to obtain and maintain their grip on power. As a result, he warned Americans to guard against would-be despots who would use parties as ‘potent engines … to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government.’ The greatest danger to the Union, though, stemmed from the combination of factionalism and external invasion. Washington explained that partisanship ‘open[ed] the door to foreign influence and corruption’ because it weakened voters’ abilities to make reasoned and disinterested choices. Rather than choosing the best men for office, the people would base decisions on ‘ill-founded jealousies and false alarms,’ and so elect those in league with foreign conspirators. To avoid outside interference, Washington advocated a foreign policy based on neutrality and friendly commercial relations with all.”

The site notes, “James Madison had written a draft in 1792 when Washington had contemplated retiring after his first term. Retaining only the first few paragraphs of Madison’s version, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton conducted an extensive rewrite, with Washington providing the final edits.” If you are enjoying a three-day holiday weekend, take a moment to reflect on the greatness of past leaders who struggled to ensure the continuity of the union. From all of us at Enterra Solutions®, celebrate a safe and enjoyable Washington’s Birthday.

Footnotes
[1] Staff, “Washington’s Farewell Address,” United States Senate.