Robert F. Jakubowicz: A great president, a great precedent
Presidents’ Day is a made up name for this federal and multi-state holiday. It was never intended to be a day honoring all of the presidents. It also does a disservice to George Washington because the taking of his name out of this holiday is gradually erasing an important figure from the American memory. How this all happened seems to have become lost in today’s celebration of the holiday.
Congress made Washington’s Birthday a holiday in 1879 for federal employees. State legislatures followed by making that day a holiday in their respective states. In 1968 Congress passed a Uniform Monday Holiday Act that went into effect in 1971 to enable federal employees to enjoy 3-day weekend holiday celebrations. This federal law changed the date for celebrating Washington’s birthday from February 22 to the thirrd Monday in February. This law did not change the name of the holiday to Presidents’ Day. Nor did it mention Lincoln’s Birthday, or any other president’s birthday, as being part of this celebration.
Contrary to popular belief, this holiday is not intended to be a celebration of all the presidents, nor does the legislation for it name it as Presidents’ Day. The ad agencies for retailers made this change as a sales gimmick.
Washington was an excellent choice of the founding fathers of this country to serve as the first president. He was celebrated for his service long before Congress decided to make his birthday a federal holiday. On February 22, 1862, the 130th anniversary of Washington’s birthday, both houses of Congress met jointly to honor him by having his farewell address read on Capitol Hill. In addition to celebrating Washington, the reading of this speech in Congress was timely and significant because the Civil War was raging at the time.
The theme of this speech by Washington’s was unity. He said: "The unity of government which constitutes you as one people Š is the main pillar in the edifice of your real independence," as well as "tranquility at home" and "peace abroad." Washington’s major goal as the first chief executive was to make sure that the constitutional idea of unity by the former colonies as states would take hold and continue as the foundation for this nation.
The reading of his farewell address has become a tradition in the Senate from 1896 to the present with a selected member reading it on Washington’s Birthday. This Is ironic today because if senators think this is one of the great presidential speeches that deserves annual recognition in that chamber, then its message of a unified government is being disregarded by members like Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his filibustering band of Republican Party members.
During his first term, President Obama made a real effort to reach common ground with the GOP members of Congress to unite the government in addressing national issues. In this effort, the president proposed measures that were sponsored in the past by the Republicans. But he was rebuffed. It is hard to imagine that a group of adult elected leaders would stoop to such juvenile behavior as disavowing their own past proposal in an political effort to stop the reelection of the president so that their political party could win an ensuing election to dominate the government in the White House and Congress.
Washington was extremely concerned over the forming of political factions, the forerunners of today’s political parties in America. American historian Professor Jill Lepore, who teaches American history at Harvard, noted that Washington was even distraught by the squabbling in and outside his own administration between Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams. She believes that Washington served a second term "only reluctantly" in an attempt to curb this political in-fighting.
In his farewell address, he warned the American public about political party rancor and what it would mean in the future: "The alternate domination of one faction (party) over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissention, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism." And as Lepore notes, Americans did not heed this warning about the divisiveness of political parties as they did not follow his precedent of freeing his slaves in his will.
The office of a president of a republic was unique at the time of the founding of America. Washington as the first one set a good precedent for others to follow. His major role and legacy was to set this country on its course of being unity of states under a constitutional form of government. He visited all of the states during his presidency in this effort. He did not try to turn the office into a dictatorship. He could have served for life, as many expected he would, but stepped down after two terms, a precedent that lasted until FDR became president. He set the bar for this office. His warning about the divisive nature of political parties being one of the biggest threats to this country still holds true today.
On the celebration of this holiday, I urge the senators listening to the reading of Washington’s Farewell Address to pay attention to Washington’s message of unity in governing this nation.
Robert "Frank" Jakubowicz, a Pittsfield lawyer, is a regular contributor to the Eagle.