Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s famous painting of Washington crossing the Delaware River.
This is the story of what could be the greatest day of the greatest American who ever lived. It originally appeared in The American Thinker on February 22, 2005 and was the very first article I wrote for that fine publication.
Today is President’s day – a day as my colleague at AT Ari Kaufman points out that “not only do schools go on as scheduled, but so do many state and government offices. This is not surprising in 2008, and many revel in it.”
Indeed, as the very significance of President’s Day fades out of existence, the need to remember our greatest president, George Washington, by recognizing his birthday as a true national holiday becomes even more urgent.
If any American deserves this singular honor, it is Washington. Quite simply, there would not be a United States of America without him. And even if there were, it would certainly be a much different place.
This article originally appeared in The American Thinker.
The year was 1783. While formal hostilities had virtually ceased between the Crown and the American colonies, peace talks continued to drag on in London. The Congress was broke and in serious debt even though the Articles of Confederation, which required individual states to contribute funds to the Congress, had been approved two years earlier.
The Continental Army was restless. Many of its officers hadn’t been paid in months. Promises made by Congress at the time of their enlistment regarding reimbursement for food and clothing, pensions, and a pledge to give the officers half pay for life were either not being honored or were rumored to be withdrawn. Petitions by groups of officers to Congress asking them to redress these and other grievances either went unanswered or were brushed aside.
As a result of these indignities, a cabal of officers headed up by Colonel Walter Stewart and Major John Armstrong, an aide to George Washington’s chief rival Horatio Gates, were making plans to march to Philadelphia at the head of their men to force Congress to deal with their demands. The implication was clear; if Congress would not address their concerns, the men would enforce their will at the point of a bayonet.
The plotters believed that General Washington would be forced by their actions to become a reluctant participant in a military coup against the government. They believed that by presenting a united front composed of the senior officers in the army, Washington would have no choice but to back them.
To that end, they scheduled a meeting on March 10 of all general and field officers. With the invitation to the meeting, a fiery letter was circulated calling on the soldiers not to disarm in peace and, if the war were to continue, to disband and leave the country to the tender mercies of the British Army.
Washington got wind of the meeting and was deeply troubled. He issued a General Order canceling the gathering and instead, called for another meeting on March 15 ” of representatives of all the regiments to decide how to attain the just and important object in view.” The next day, another letter was circulated by the plotters that implied by issuing the General Order, Washington agreed with their position.
With the army teetering on the edge of revolt and the future of the United States as a republic in the balance, Washington stood before the assembled officers and began to speak. He started by saying he sympathized with their plight, that he had written countless letters to Congress reminding them of their responsibilities to the soldiers, and begged the officers not to take any action that would “lessen the dignity and sully the glory you have hitherto maintained.”
At that point, Washington reached into his pocket and withdrew a letter from a Congressman outlining what the government would do to address the soldiers grievances. But something was wrong. Washington started reading the letter but stopped abruptly. Then, with a sense of the moment and flair for the dramatic not equaled until Ronald Reagan became President, Washington slowly reached into his coat pocket and withdrew a pair of spectacles. There were gasps in the room as most of the officers had never seen their beloved General display such a sign of physical weakness in public. As he put the glasses on, Washington said “Gentlemen, you’ll permit me to put on my spectacles, as I have grown not only old but almost blind in the service of my country.”
Witnesses say that the officers almost to a man began to weep. This powerful reminder of the nearly eight years of service together and their shared sacrifices and hardships won the day. The revolt died then and there.
It could be argued that this was the greatest day of the greatest American who ever lived. And the fact that we no longer officially celebrate Washington’s birthday on February 22 as a national holiday is a travesty that makes this and other deeds of George Washington seem like mere footnotes on the pages of history.
In fact, the third Monday in February is still designated as Washington’s Birthday, not “President’s Day” as it has come to be known. As Matthew Spaulding of the Heritage Foundation points out, several times, legislators have introduced legislation to direct all federal government entities to refer to the holiday as George Washington’s Birthday but to no avail. President Bush could issue an executive order to that effect but has failed to do so.
This doesn’t address the issue of celebrating February 22-no matter what day of the week it falls on-as a national holiday. The argument that no other American is so honored just doesn’t hold water. The fact is, there wouldn’t be any other Americans to honor if it weren’t for the character, the purposefulness, and the determination of George Washington.
For long stretches during the Revolution, Washington was the government; the only recognizable entity for people to rally around. Couple that with Washington’s superhuman efforts in molding and shaping the Presidency and then exhibiting the sublime understanding to step down after two terms to cement the foundation of the new republic to the rule of law and not of men, and you have a strong case to make an exception to the rule of honoring individual Americans.
Currently, Martin Luther King is the only individual American who is honored with his own holiday. And the Fourth of July and Veterans Day are the only federal holidays covered under the Monday Holiday Law passed in 1968 that are celebrated on the day of the week regardless of whether or not it falls on a Monday (Thanksgiving’s date changes yearly. Christmas and New Years day may be celebrated on either Friday or Monday depending on what day of the week they fall on in a given year). Designating February 22 as a national holiday to celebrate the life of someone called “the indispensable man” of the American founding by his outstanding biographer James Thomas Flexner would seem to be fitting and proper.
We owe so much to Washington that it seems almost trivial to deny him this singular honor.