Thursday, February 9, 2017

Still celebrating Washington's birthday after all these years -- Feb. 9, 2017 column


Historians trace the first public celebration of George Washington’s birthday to the harsh winter of 1778 at Valley Forge during the Revolutionary War.

That’s when fifers and drummers from Proctor’s Continental Artillery band played for the general at his quarters.

For the first holiday in honor of Washington’s birthday, though, Americans can thank the French.

In 1781, Count Rochambeau granted the French Army in Rhode Island a day off and held a parade to celebrate Washington’s birthday. In those halcyon days before tweets, Washington thanked the count in a letter.

“The flattering distinction paid to the anniversary of my birthday is an honor for which I dare not attempt to express my gratitude,” Washington wrote.

Celebrations continued, but President Washington suffered the slings and arrows of a critical press. A newspaper writer blasted the Washington birthday celebration in Philadelphia in 1793 as a “monarchical farce” that exhibited “every species of royal pomp and parade,” Ron Chernow writes in “Washington: A Life.”

The federal government first gave its employees in Washington a legal day off to celebrate Washington’s birthday in 1879. Some were paid, others not. The government extended the paid holiday to federal employees everywhere in 1885.

History does not record, to my knowledge, when -- or why -- the first American decided to buy a mattress to celebrate the birth of the Father of our Country.

We tend to blame the 20th century for cashing in on Washington, but the practice started even while he was alive.  

“George Washington surely holds the record for the number of times the image of a historical figure has appeared on goods made for the American home,” art historian William Ayres wrote in an essay on the commercialization of the Washington image from 1776 to 1876 in “George Washington: American Symbol.”

Moderns, prodded by the tourism industry, made Washington’s birthday into a three-day weekend. 

President Lyndon Johnson signed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act in 1968, effective in 1971, celebrating Washington’s Birthday on the third Monday in February; Memorial Day on the last Monday in May and Veterans Day on the fourth Monday in October. Veterans were outraged, and the last was moved back to Nov. 11.

“It will enable families who live some distance apart to spend more time together. Americans will be able to travel farther and see more of this beautiful land of ours. They will be able to participate in a wider range of recreational and cultural activities,” LBJ said at the signing ceremony.

He didn’t mention shopping.

How the third Monday in February became known as Presidents Day is a bit of a mystery. Some blame President Richard Nixon, but his 1971 executive order does not mention Presidents Day.

Congress, in a rare stroke of genius, never officially changed the holiday from George Washington’s Birthday to Presidents Day.  

Most states adopted Presidents Day, even though it dilutes the Washington connection. Illinois has holidays for Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday Feb. 13 and Washington’s on Feb. 20 this year. Virginia sticks with George Washington Day. Alabama commemorates both Washington and Thomas Jefferson’s birthday on Feb. 20, even though Jefferson’s birthday is in April.

One enduring birthday tribute to Washington is the reading of his 1796 Farewell Address on the Senate floor. His letter from “a parting friend” warns the young nation against geographical divisions, political parties and foreign interference in domestic affairs.  

The address was read in 1862 during the Civil War in hopes of building morale, and every year since 1896 a senator has read aloud the entire address – 7,641 words. It usually takes about 45 minutes and often the senator reads to an empty chamber. 
Cynics say the reading is a charade since the Senate ignores Washington’s wisdom.

But his words draw us back to what matters, especially in times that pull us apart.

“The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity must always exalt the just pride of patriotism,” he wrote.

“With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits and political principles. You have in a common cause fought and triumphed together.”

Happy birthday, Mr. Washington.

©2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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