“If we do this [change the date of the Washington holiday celebration], ten years from now our school children will not know what February 22 means. They will not know or care when George Washington was born. They will know that in the middle of February they will have a three-day weekend for some reason. This will come.” These prophetic words, passionately argued by Tennessee Congressman Dan Kuykendall more than 40 years ago, have come true. Ask most school kids today why February 22nd is special, and they will probably give you a blank stare.
The passage of the Uniform Monday Federal Holiday Law in 1968 triggered an avalanche that would bury “the father of our country,” along with his guiding virtues and reminders of how and why the U.S. was born.
Washington inspired his contemporaries and countless American s since, motivating others to emulate him. Washington set the gold standard for presidents and private character. “His example was as edifying to all around him as were the effects of that example lasting,” wrote John Marshall in Washington’s official eulogy. “The purity of his private character gave effulgence to his public virtues.”
“More than any other,” says Matthew Spalding, Ph.D., Washington “made possible our republican form of government.”
When we grew up, celebrating George Washington’s birthday was a big deal, and you couldn’t help but be inspired by him. We studied him, what he stood for and what he did to bring America to fruition. Mary Beth’s grandmother, a patriotic American if you ever met one, loved that she shared the same birth date with Washington, always having a birthday cake covered with cherries and American flags.
When faced with the crisis of the Civil War, a council from Philadelphia came begging Washington’s Farewell Address be read as a morale booster and bulwark to a teetering and fear-filled country. Tennessee Senator Andrew Johnson introduced the petition in the Senate. “In view of the perilous condition of the country,” he said, “I think the time has arrived when we should recur back to the days, the times, and the doings of Washington and the patriots of the Revolution, who founded the government under which we live.”
In his Farewell Address, Washington’s advice to the nation was to uphold the Constitution and the rule of law, protect American independence, and encourage morality and religion. The reading of the Farewell Address in the Senate remains an annual event, even if his advice is ignored there.
Since the 1968 law makes it a federal holiday, individual states dropped the ball in celebrating Washington’s Birthday. Historian C.L. Arbelbide says, “For students in Texas, the renaming of the states Washington holiday to ‘President’s Day’ established the beginning of generations of children whose connection to Washington was fading.” In the 2004-2205 school year, of Virginia’s 134 school districts (Washington’s own home state), only two listed on their internet sites the correct “Washington Birthday” title for the holiday. But Virginia is not alone; other states and their schools have similar records.