The annual federal holiday known as President’s Day is a time to honor the birthday of George Washington, the U.S.’s first president and a key Founding Father. But these days, honoring past presidents and key figures in American history is not widely accepted in pop culture, media, academia, and Hollywood.
Unfortunately, revisionist history and criticism of America’s past is not new, but it is en vogue in parts of American society today. Much of the criticism focuses on the slavery aspect of the Founding Fathers like Washington, but ignore facts and context of the times. Among amateur and professional historians, a common adage is not to judge the past based on the present’s values and morals, which is exactly what the revisionist critics are doing.
One major sticking point for critics is that Washington’s name is dirtied by his slave-owning ties, but do not mention that he put in his will to free the 123 slaves he own upon his death at age 67 in 1799.
As background, President’s Day came into existence to honor Washington’s birthday, which is February 22, 1732. Congress, in 1971, moved the holiday observance to a Monday. As the National Archives notes:
Washington’s Birthday was the first federal holiday to honor an individual’s birth date. In 1885, Congress designated February 22 as a holiday for all federal workers. Nearly a century later, in 1971, the Uniform Monday Holiday Law changed the date to the third Monday in February. The position of the holiday between the birthdays of Washington and Abraham Lincoln gave rise to the popular name of Presidents Day. Explore selected documents and images from the National Archives Catalog related to Washington’s Birthday.
But why focus on George Washington? Here are some facts to think about:
- He was the first U.S. president and set the precedent (later broken by Franklin Delano Roosevelt) where presidents only can serve two total terms as the chief executive.
- He cobbled together an army of militia together to fight the world’s then-most powerful army during the Revolutionary War, which he later won by a mix of attrition, internal politics in the British Empire, and the entrance of France into the conflict.
- Despite several major defeats in New York and Pennsylvania, which led to the capture of New York City and the revolutionaries’ capital of Philadelphia, Washington held the army together at Valley Forge during a harsh winter.
- He stopped a potential coup and takeover of the colonial government by army officers, which has been called the Newburgh Conspiracy.
- Without his presence at the constitutional convention in Philadelphia in 1787, it is possible that the U.S. Constitution as we know it may not have come about. Several attendees convinced Washington to preside over the convention to create a consensus, which would result in the creation of the Constitution and ultimately retire the much-maligned Articles of Confederation.
Contrary to the popular narratives, George Washington and President’s Day should be a day to celebrate the progress of the country and the life of the country’s first president.