I have a confession to make: I’m a presidential historian who dislikes Presidents’ Day.
Actually, it’s worse than that. I’m a George Washington biographer who dislikes what is also known as George Washington’s Birthday.
The third Monday in February is a dud of a holiday, in no small part because of unnecessary confusion around it. Federal law is clear: The day belongs to Washington. But it’s not a clean win. Washington was born on the 22nd, not the 20th, when the holiday is being observed this year. No president was born on the 20th.
Several states — among them Delaware, Florida, Louisiana and Wisconsin — don’t recognize the day at all. Americans who dare to judge them should first consider: How do you observe Presidents’ Day? Most of us accept a day off from work (or are forced to do so by our national child care crisis), while the rest of us phone it in with little to no imagination or guidance. Our ambivalence about Presidents’ Day says something essential about whether we think of the office as a symbol of democracy.
Americans no longer uniformly associate Presidents’ Day with Washington, as evidenced by the haphazard observance among the states: Georgia and Mississippi celebrate Washington’s Birthday, while Virginia (Washington’s home state) celebrates George Washington Day, bypassing the issue of his birth date. But other states don’t seem quite as confident that he can carry the day on his own, removing the name of our first president. Washington, who founded the union, sometimes shares the day with Abraham Lincoln, who saved it.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that the states that seceded from the union upon Lincoln’s election have left him off the Presidents’ Day marquee. Alabama officially celebrates George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. This is a somewhat amusing pairing to a Washington scholar; the frenemies, bitterly divided by factionalism, were estranged when Washington died. In Arkansas, Washington is joined by Daisy Gatson Bates, a civil rights activist. South Carolina plays both sides with “George Washington’s Birthday/Presidents’ Day,” but that doesn’t mean every president is getting any play: Martin Van Buren, for one, goes uncelebrated.
National indifference is a symptom of the problem: The presidency, central to the success of our infant nation, is besieged. Washington understood, as he wrote in his 1796 Farewell Address, that political parties “may now and then answer popular ends.” But that’s different from the G.O.P. in 2023, which has many Republicans who make the big lie a cornerstone of their campaigns. Those kinds of parties, Washington worried, were “potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”
I held Washington’s address like a talisman on Jan. 6, 2021, the infamous day a sitting president incited an insurrection with the explicit goal of overturning a legitimate presidential election. I imagined a time when the chief executive held the sacredness of the office above his own electoral fortunes. Donald Trump may be little more than a Florida man at the moment, but “cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men” like Josh Hawley, the Missouri Republican who was captured on video sprinting from the very pro-Trump mob that, mere hours earlier, he had saluted in solidarity — remain in office today. They do his bidding there, often imitating his style.
Earlier this month, as Republicans booed, heckled and disrespected President Biden during his State of the Union address, I took little solace from those around them who remained silent. In 1856, Representative Preston Brooks brutally caned Senator Charles Sumner over slavery in that very building, but in 2023, anyone who stands between Mr. Trump and the presidency is in danger.
After the Capitol riot, according to a Gallup poll, the average party gap in confidence in the presidency was 34 points between 1993 and 2004, but has since averaged 50 points. It is hard not to observe to what degree the office of the presidency has declined.
If we heed George Washington’s warnings, the diminishing of the presidency will only get worse. “A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume,” Washington wrote, and indeed, Donald Trump follows a well-used playbook on how to destroy a democracy. Illiberal leaders attack elections as unjust and, despite lacking evidence, manage to rewrite the rules, install political cronies as watchdogs and judges and appeal to the electorate with racism. And then, “a more formal and permanent despotism,” Washington warned, who would represent a minority. He spoke from experience. Washington played dutiful colonist for decades, only to seize an unlikely victory for democracy in a world of strongmen, dictators and kings.
National indifference to Presidents’ Day should be, at this critical moment, embraced as a rare opportunity to return to a founding ideal we should all be able to get behind: democracy. America is a precarious experiment that rests on the fulcrum of agreement. If elected officials and civil servants refuse to play by the same rules, voting access and democratic procedures will be eroded. Voters still have faith in our leaders, or at least they keep voting in elections, but the time has come to remind them of their place. The president, senators and representatives, after all, serve at the American electorate’s pleasure, and not the other way around.
Presidents’ Day has the potential to issue a yearly reminder about this if it undergoes a substantial shift in focus. It cannot be about one president — who will be just fine no matter what. Washington can’t be canceled. If you erase Washington, you erase America. But a national figurehead? We will never agree on one, and without agreement there is no meaning.
In other words, I’m asking Washington to do what he did best: give up power.
Alexis Coe is a presidential historian. She is the author, most recently, of “You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington.”
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