Bartlett: Just Say No To ‘Presidents Day’
If you work in the office of Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.), you’d better not have spent Monday celebrating Presidents Day.
In Bartlett’s office, the name of the holiday that falls on the third Monday of February is always Washington’s Birthday. As far as the Congressman is concerned, Presidents Day is a cheap, generic term used by car dealerships and clothing retailers to throw sales events — not the proper way to honor the accomplishments of America’s two greatest presidents, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
Bartlett feels so strongly about the issue that for the past three Congresses he has introduced the Washington-Lincoln Recognition Act, which seeks to ensure that the federal government refer to the legal public holiday, which is specified in the United States Code as Washington’s Birthday, by that name and no other.
Bartlett’s bill also includes a provision that each year on Lincoln’s birthday, Feb. 12, the president issue a proclamation recognizing the birth of Lincoln and calling on the public to observe the anniversary with appropriate ceremonies.
“We’re losing our history and how we got here,” Bartlett said last week. “I can’t remember the last time anyone mentioned to me on Presidents Day that we were honoring Lincoln or Washington or anyone else. It’s become an opportunity for sales and a day off of school and it’s no longer a recognition of these two very key people in our history.”
Washington’s birthday was first nationally celebrated in 1796, albeit unofficially, during the last full year of his presidency. By the early 19th century, Feb. 22 had become a day celebrated all across America with parades, speeches and numerous servings of cherry pie.
In 1885, Washington’s birthday officially became a federal holiday through a bill signed by President Chester Arthur. However, by that time, many states were also observing Lincoln’s birthday as a separate holiday 10 days earlier.
So when the federal Monday Holiday Act of 1968 officially moved the observance of Washington’s Birthday to the third Monday of February, many people began celebrating the holiday as a day for both men and eventually all the men who have served in the White House. But with the rise of a more inclusive Presidents Day, Bartlett said, the accomplishments of Lincoln and Washington have been diminished.
“If [Presidents Day] honors the best, it also honors the most mediocre,” Bartlett said. So his goal is to reclaim the federal holiday for Washington while also properly recognizing Lincoln on his own birthday — without making it another federal holiday.
But ever since Bartlett submitted his bill in the 107th Congress, it has been stuck in committee, due, the Maryland Republican said, to opposition from members of the Illinois delegation who “incorrectly perceive that Lincoln is somehow recognized on Presidents Day and that if you called it Washington’s Birthday he wouldn’t be recognized.”
But according to Jim Rees, executive director at Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, doing away with the Presidents Day name is not only the best way to make the holiday significant again but also something Lincoln would approve of.
“We definitely feel very strongly that Presidents Day is virtually meaningless and has turned into a shopping holiday,” Rees said. “What makes sense of going back to Washington’s Birthday is that historians today still go back to him as our best president. … I think if Lincoln were alive today he’d be in favor of calling it Washington’s birthday. In Lincoln’s day, Washington was looked upon as being impossible to match in his character and leadership.”
Rees went on to quote a Lincoln address from Washington’s birthday in 1842 in which the future 16th president stated, “Washington is the mightiest name of earth. … To add brightness to the sun or glory to the name of Washington is alike impossible. Let none attempt it. In solemn awe pronounce the name, and in its naked deathless splendor leave it shining on.”
Rae Emerson, the site manager for Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site, said she believes that Lincoln’s birthday will continue to be a historic day regardless of whether the federal holiday is known as Presidents Day or Washington’s Birthday.
She noted that the theater celebrates each Feb. 12 with special programs and a wreath-laying ceremony and added that visitors to the site understand the importance of that day no matter what they call the later February federal holiday.
But Bartlett said that although another Washington’s Birthday has now gone by with many federal agencies still calling the holiday the wrong name, he hopes that come February 2006 both Lincoln and Washington will be honored properly.
“We’re going to work real hard to get it done before the next Washington’s Birthday,” he assured.