Monday, February 20

Observing Washington: George Washington Day

Although many in the United States believe Presidents' Day is a meant to be a celebration of both President Washington and President Lincoln (and all presidents to some degree), the federal holiday is still only tied to celebrating the birthday of President George Washington. Any other designation is usually derived from state laws and not those of the nation.

In fact, the one time the federal government tried to pass such a law, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act in 1968, it failed in committee. It wasn't until the mid 1980s that the idea of Presidents' Day took hold, spurred on not by government but by advertisers. Shortly after that commercial movement, some states began to rename Washington's Birthday observances as "President's Day," "Presidents' Day," "Washington and Lincoln Day," or other designations.

In some ways, the combining of the observance (if not in spirit, in law), might have been a mistake. George Washington had a unique vision for the country and one fitting for people to consider today. Nowhere did he make his thoughts better known than his farewell address, which you can read here. Here are some highlights.

Highlights from George Washington's Farewell Address. 

Unity. Washington reminded the American people that their independence, peace at home and abroad, safety, prosperity, and liberty are all dependent upon the unity between the states. Although he recognized different regions had different beliefs, values, and visions of commerce, he believed that the nation would only prosper through unity.

Change. Although Washington specifically said that it was the right of the people to alter its government that these alternations and changes ought to only be done through constitutional amendments. Even then, he warned that political factions would ultimately take the power from the people and place it in the hands of unjust men.

Parties. Even as the first president, Washington saw the rise of a political party system as a danger to the nation and the Constitution. He believed there was too much potential for one group or another to seek power over other groups and gradually incline the minds of men to seek security as opposed to the absolute power of the individual.

 • Values. Although many people like to suggest that the United States ought to preserve a hardline separation of church and state, Washington believed that religious principles promote the protection of property, reputation, and life that are the foundations of justice. He said the morality of a nation cannot be maintained without religion (despite being a Diest himself).

Budget. Washington said that a balanced federal budget, including the maintenance of the nation's credit, is an important source of strength and security. He said the nation should avoid war, avoid unnecessary borrowing, and pay off any national debt accumulated in times of war as quickly as possible so future generations would not have to take care of those financial burdens.

Alliances. Washington continually maintained that the nation ought to avoid permanent foreign alliances with other nations, especially because foreign nations will continually seek to influence the American people and government. He said real patriots will be those who ignore popular opinion and resist the influence of friendly nations to seek what is best for their own country.

Equally interesting, in looking at the entirety of the address, it seems remarkable that a man who began his life as someone considered among the "middle ranking" would one day gain the experience necessary to guide the formation of a country and eventually preside over a constitutional government that could evolve. And, the entire time, he remained humble enough to feel the position he was elected to was largely undeserved.

His humility, no doubt, was the result of his own heritage. Although his half-brother, who acted as Washington's father figure after their own father had died, did have some privileges and opportunities granted to him after developing a close relationship with the Fairfax family, Washington was not necessarily born into any elite status like some of the country's founding fathers. He earned most of it.

And perhaps it was because he earned it that Washington still imparts some of the best wisdom for this country, even if his farewell address is no longer read by the House of Representatives and had taken on a more ceremonial reading in the Senate than one for our senators and representatives to reflect on.

If they did, some might imagine a very different agenda. If they did, they might see a government that works to unite rather than divide, preserve a legacy rather than write their own, protect individuals rather than subjugate them, observe morals rather than vilify them, balance a budget rather than argue about how much more to borrow, and place more importance on the country rather than its position in the world.

Happy birthday, George Washington (Feb. 11 on the old calendar and Feb. 22 on the new one). You might not have thought yourself worthy of the position, but your considerable wisdom proves otherwise. On every point, you were right.
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