One could be forgiven the impression that Presidents’ Day is just another jingoistic inducement for Americans to go shopping for cars and mattresses. Nothing reinforces this impression quite like car commercials featuring schoolchildren singing the names of dead presidents as a nursery rhyme.
Except that commercial jingles will get a run for their money this year from Trump supporters chanting “lock her up” at his Jonestown-style cult initiations, which masquerade as campaign rallies. Mind you, they’re referring to Nancy Pelosi, not Hillary Clinton. Two-year-old babies are capable of more creativity than these political zombies.
An older holiday
In any event, the U.S. government inaugurated this holiday in 1799 as a day of remembrance to honor the nation’s first president and Revolutionary War hero, George Washington.
Abraham Lincoln is the only other president ever accorded this honor, beginning in 1866. No doubt sympathy and regret over his assassination at Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865, inspired it. But Americans duly hailed him as the man who “preserved the Union through its darkest hour” – the Civil War.
Since then, however, Americans have considered no other president sufficiently worthy,
notwithstanding that they have sculpted the face of two of them (Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt) into Mount Rushmore, alongside those of Washington and Lincoln.
It’s a testament to the extraordinary character and accomplishments of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that he’s the only other American to have a federal holiday – the third Monday in January – declared in his name.
Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act in 1971. It called for Presidents’ Day and a number of other holidays (like Memorial Day and Veterans Day) to be celebrated on the nearest Monday, irrespective of actual dates. I gather the only reason for doing so was to give federal workers a threeday weekend in each case.
According to HISTORY.com, “Presidents’ Day never falls on the actual birthday of any American president. (George Washington and Abraham Lincoln) were born in February, but their birthdays all come either too early or late to coincide with Presidents’ Day, which is always celebrated on the third Monday of the month. …
“Washington and Lincoln still remain the two most recognized leaders, but Presidents’ Day is now popularly seen as a day to recognize the lives and achievements of all of America’s chief executives.”
A Heroes’ Day?
It is notable in this context that the MLK holiday still stands alone. But I suspect it’s only be a matter of time before Congress passes a National Heroes Holiday Act to recognize the lives and achievements of other great Americans like Ben Franklin, Sojourner Truth, Mark Twain, Jackie Robinson, Neil Armstrong, Elvis Presley, et al.
I feel obliged to refer you to my commentary on the MLK memorial, “Mall at Last, Mall at Last, Thank God Almighty a Black Is on the Mall at Last,” posted November 14, 2006. In it, I delineate why Frederick Douglass’s heroic biography and leadership in the fight to end slavery make him even more worthy than MLK of being honored with a holiday.
I end this tribute to dead presidents by nominating Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Ronald W. Reagan to grace Mount Rushmore II. Who gets your nominations?
Anthony L. Hall is a native of The Bahamas with an international law practice in Washington, D.C. Read his columns and daily weblog at www.theipinionsjournal.com.