The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Happy birthday, George Washington

How Washington’s birthday could help revive his vision for the country

The Federal Hall statue of George Washington overlooks the New York Stock Exchange on June 7. (Richard Drew/AP)

Today, we mark George Washington’s birthday during a dark time. Our fatigued country is divided over debates about elections and voting rights protections, charged racial politics and the worth of getting vaccinated during a deadly pandemic. In this fraught moment, we would be well served to come together and remember our common history with a party of historic proportions and spectacle, as Americans did in 1932 when they hosted an epic nine-month bash for the 200th anniversary of Washington’s birth.

Back then, the holiday became an opportunity to reacquaint Americans with their country’s aspirations and principles of government, separate the man from the myth with educational materials about his life and accomplishments, inspire patriotism and have some fun.

Presidents’ Day, officially named “George Washington’s Birthday,” originated as an informal remembrance of the first president held on his exact birthday, Feb. 22. In 1879, President Rutherford B. Hayes made the day a federal holiday in the nation’s capital, and by 1885 the entire country joined the observance.

In 1896, the Senate began the tradition of reciting Washington’s Farewell Address on Feb. 22, in part a reflection on his hopes for democracy and his warning of the dangers of fractious political parties.

Since then, on an annual rotating basis, a senator from one political party reads the 7,641-word speech, which runs about 45 minutes. After the reading, that senator writes their name in the book along with a message. While serving as a senator in 1956, for example, Hubert Humphrey (D-Minn.) inscribed: “It gives one a renewed sense of pride in our republic. It arouses the wholesome and creative emotions of patriotism and love of country.”

Government representatives saw the bicentennial of Washington’s birth in 1932 as a cause for special celebration, and so in 1924, President Calvin Coolidge signed a joint resolution authorizing a nine-month extravaganza.

After seven years of planning by a government-appointed Bicentennial Commission and local community groups, vintage-designed invitations beckoned Americans to birthday balls across the country. They played colonial music and required dress in historic costume. Washington impersonators, including the first president’s great-great-great grandnephew, were in high demand. Despite taking place in the depths of the Great Depression, these lavish parades and pageants marked the extended patriotic party.

For example, the city of Paterson, N.J. hosted a Washington pageant with 1,500 participants, including 200 dancers and 300 singers. John Philip Sousa, composer of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” — the U.S. national march — was commissioned to write a “George Washington Bicentennial March.” To debut the piece, Sousa conducted the official bands of the U.S. Army, Navy and Marines. Spare tire covers were even decorated with images of Washington for members of Congress.

In all, there were 4,760,345 individual bicentennial programs held by churches, schools, civic bodies, fraternal orders and more. The excitement by which Americans lauded Washington may have been the impetus for President Franklin D. Roosevelt to launch his own “birthday balls,” which raised money for polio each year — a cause important to the president, who suffered partial paralysis from a case of polio he contracted in his late 30s.

Crucially, there were copious educational components to the nine-month-long Washington bicentennial celebration. Theaters throughout the country showed an informative film, “Washington: The Man and the Capitol,” to educate Americans about the first president’s leadership. Classrooms received a reproduction of Gilbert Stuart’s iconic portrait of Washington, familiar for its appearance on the dollar bill. Students studied materials provided by the “Education Division” of the Bicentennial Commission, and participated in plays and contests about the foremost commander in chief. A meticulously detailed 39-volume book series collected the president’s writings, and innumerable other publications exalted the life and deeds of one of the nation’s founders.

A primary goal of this literature, distributed nationwide at no cost, was also to debunk overly flattering, even swashbuckling myths about the president. Researchers deemed it dubious that he had chopped down a cherry tree and confessed to his father, “I cannot tell a lie.” So too, the commission presented Washington not only as a great leader, but as a man with sorrows and moments of self-doubt. Organizers failed to go a step further in dispelling myths about the president, neglecting to explain that Washington was an enslaver of more than 100 human beings who signed the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act. Not surprisingly, the 1932 commemoration, taking place at the height of Jim Crow segregation, was not inclusive of Black Americans.

At the revelries’ end, Roosevelt commended the organizers for conveying to fellow Americans “much more than a mere demonstration of memorial fever.” The celebrations, he said, “reached deep into the hearts of the people, and revived in them fundamental reasons for pride of country and faith in its system of government.”

Celebrating Washington’s birthday has changed since then. In 1968, when Congress passed the “Uniform Monday Holiday Act,” nearly all of the country’s national holidays were assigned to the first day of the week to create long weekends. This meant that after the law went into effect in 1971, Washington’s “birthday” would rarely fall on the day of his birth. That shift transformed our observance of Washington’s birthday, now mostly a pretext for a short out-of-town trip or to shop at the many well-publicized Presidents’ Day retail sales. Retailers, in fact, coined the moniker “Presidents’ Day” in the 1980s, replacing the official designation: “George Washington’s Birthday.”

In an era where disrespect of the presidency runs rampant across party lines, where insinuation has replaced debate and ideas and an insurrection can take place in the Capitol, we could learn a lesson from the 1932 celebration of Washington. Indeed, more mindful thinking about Presidents’ Day might inspire reflection on foundational values (that the nation has long struggled to abide by) such as equality, liberty, diversity and unity.

This practice could extend to schools as a mandatory scripted education plan like that outlined by the Bicentennial Commission. In addition, a nationwide George Washington documentary could be aired at the same time on Feb. 22 for all to see — an annual communal television experience akin to the Super Bowl.

But maybe it is time for something more radical.

Celebrating George Washington is in part the celebration of democracy, and voting is a pillar of that democracy. There could be no more meaningful way to remember our first leader than creating a holiday grounded by voting. Why don’t we make the first Tuesday in every November “George Washington Voting Day”? Not a shopping or skiing holiday, but a day in which access to free transportation will be made available to voters, along with a guarantee that no citizen will be penalized for missing work.

Fiscal considerations should not be an argument for quashing such a plan. Where there’s a will, there’s a way, as those financially strapped Depression-era celebrants of Washington so ably demonstrated. And by doing so, we will be rightfully honoring President Washington’s memory and legacy.