Although popularly known as “Presidents’ Day,” February 18 this year is officially the federal celebration of “Washington’s Birthday.” George Washington, the father of this nation, deserves the recognition that the more popular name fails to convey.
Washington is remembered for his military service in the American Revolution and as the nation’s first president. But neither of these is the chief reason he is honored today. There have been greater military leaders than Washington and arguably greater presidents as well. But Washington’s greatest achievement was beyond the emotional scope of most great military and political leaders: He held the proverbial ring of power, and he gave it up of his own accord.
At the end of the Revolutionary war, when the possibility of absolute power presented itself to Washington, he humbly stepped aside. He resigned his command of the Continental Army, restoring full power to a civilian Congress that had in fact caused him great grief throughout the course of the war he had successfully prosecuted. This event is commemorated in one of the most famous murals in the Capitol Building. Washington’s selflessness separates him from lesser men who won much greater military victories but were vanquished by the temptation of power – Julius Caesar before him and Napoleon Bonaparte afterward.
Had Washington followed the governing philosophy that reigns in the capital today -- “never waste a crisis” – then there would probably be no Constitution and no United States of America.
Washington was a man with faults, and very much a product of his time. His ownership of slaves serves as a reminder of these defects. But by forfeiting his strong claim to power, Washington transcended his own time. He set an example for future generations of Americans, firmly establishing civilian control of the nation’s military.
Today’s celebration of George Washington stands as a mockery of presidents who start wars unilaterally. It is a rebuke to presidents who falsely believe their own agenda so important that it cannot wait for the processes set forth in the Constitution.
This is why “Presidents’ Day” should instead be referred to by its proper name – “Washington’s Birthday.” Today is not about the presidency, whose modern glorification would have horrified Washington. It is, rather, a celebration of the kind of selfless restraint that is so rarely exercised in that office.