Why We Should Not Observe Presidents Day

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Ah, February: What is there not to enjoy? Valentine’s Day, Groundhog Day and—Presidents Day? Some people in the United States may have enjoyed sales and a day off from school on Feb. 19. While I appreciate savings and a day of relaxation, I find the holiday useless—or even an insensitive glorification of the past.

Presidents Day, officially called “Washington’s Birthday,” according to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, has issues much like those of Columbus Day. Whereas Columbus Day celebrates a man who killed, enslaved and oppressed indigenous people, “Washington’s Birthday” celebrates the birthday of the first president of the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of State. However, it is imperative to note that the U.S.’s first president owned many, many slaves. As reported by the Mount Vernon website (Washington’s former plantation estate), President Washington owned 123 slaves at the time of his death, which is ironic considering that he worked to free the U.S. from British colonization. He even deemed the whipping of a slave at Mount Vernon to be a “very proper” punishment, according to Mount Vernon’s website

However, Washington did state in private, that he did not want to own slaves, according to the Mount Vernon estate, and endorsed the Fairfax Resolves in 1774 which condemned the slave trade, according to The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History website. Despite these measures, Washington never publicly stated that he opposed slavery, according to the Gilder Lehrman Institute, and he wrote in his will that the people he enslaved should be freed after his wife Martha’s death, according to Mount Vernon’s website. However, after her husband’s death, Martha freed the people George Washington enslaved before she passed away when, “She may have feared for her safety in a situation where the freedom of so many depended on her death,” according to Mount Vernon. I do understand why Washington is celebrated—He was our nation’s first president, and that is a big deal. But the fact that he owned slaves is extremely disenchanting and detestable, especially since Washington is almost exclusively portrayed in U.S. school curricula as a hero. Nonetheless, I do not know why we still celebrate his birthday with such great fervor knowing part of his story included owning enslaved people.

The Presidents Day holiday was signed into law by President Johnson in 1968 for the purpose of celebrating ”all the chief executive’s who have occupied the White House,” and not just Washington, according to IndyStar. Unfortunately, this means that we honor the 12 U.S. presidents who owned slaves, according to History.com. If you want to celebrate modern-day presidents, to escape celebrating any past leaders of the U.S., I have bad news. Several other presidents other than Washington have made choices which could have led them into serious legal issues, according to Cornell Law School’s website. Even though none have faced criminal charges, other than former President Donald Trump, according to NPR, it does not mean the harm was not legitimate. Can we ethically enjoy a holiday that also celebrates presidents who have been accused of being involved in war crimes, according to NPR and PBS, such as President George W. Bush and President Ronald Reagan? How about the Obama administration, which, according to Harvard Politics, approved 563 drone strikes in various locations across the Middle East that killed approximately 3,797 people? Then consider the U.S. President Joe Biden, a president who has asked lawmakers to approve billions of dollars in aid to support the Israeli military, according to NPR, in a war that has killed thousands of people (according to NBC)?

On a somewhat lighter note, I also do not understand why sales and rampant consumerism are promoted during Presidents Day. According to Time Magazine, after the Uniform Monday Holiday Act took effect in 1971 after being signed by President Johnson, the holiday was moved to the third Monday in February. This resulted in a three-day weekend, which gave people time to shop. Lawmakers anticipated boosts in sales and benefits to the economy would result, according to Time Magazine. While appliance stores and car dealerships may heavily promote their sales on the holiday, I wonder what the Founding Fathers would have thought about this. While I am appalled by Washington’s actions as a slave owner, I also have a feeling that he would not want his presidency honored with lackluster sales of used cars and mass-produced furniture. 

Finally, I do not understand why we celebrate Presidents Day if we already have holidays such as the Fourth of July and Veterans Day. According to the U.S. Department of State, Presidents Day also can serve as a day to honor our veterans, like Memorial Day and Veterans Day do. Even if the holiday now focuses on sales rather than honoring all of the U.S. presidents—including those who are suspected criminals and those who were slave owners—why do we have to rope in our veterans? They tend to get overshadowed by the other aspects of the holiday anyway, which is not fair to them. It would be better to replace Presidents Day with another holiday that exclusively honors our military veterans.

I am not saying that anyone is horrible for enjoying a day off from school or taking advantage of a sale during Presidents Day. But, I think we as a nation should recognize some of the horrible acts of some U.S. presidents and perhaps reflect on how our country’s actions have harmed others. I personally do not think the U.S.’s Founding Fathers would appreciate citizens uplifting democratically elected presidents to the level of a monarch through a dedicated holiday. Let us honor the ideas of democracy and separation of power and not glorify the past leaders of our country, when they should be remembered for their faults as well as their achievements.

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