You probably know that George Washington was America’s first president, but do you know about his enduring impact on people around the world? I did not until I visited Hainan, China in 2007.
At a family reunion, I struck up a conversation with one of my cousins, a Chinese citizen, and discovered we had a mutual love of politics and history. Although he criticized many recent American foreign policy decisions, he also revealed his intense admiration for George Washington.
He was astonished that after defeating Great Britain and winning American independence, Washington relinquished all his power to the people’s representatives and returned home to his farm. As a citizen of a country where the founding leader, Mao Zedong, entrenched himself in a lifelong dictatorship, my cousin found Washington’s resignation incomprehensible.
I realized then that for those who live under oppression, Washington’s deeds have served to make him a timeless rebuke to all oppressors. Unlike most victorious generals in history, he was able to resist the allure of power, allowing his fellow citizens to live in the freedom for which they had fought. He changed the course of history by proving that leaders ultimately could and ought to entrust power to the people.
Several years ago, I served as a historic interpreter at Washington’s estate, Mount Vernon. I took visitors through Washington’s home and explained that he gave up public office twice in his life: once after the Revolutionary War and again after serving two terms as president. Countless times, I saw people marvel at the idea that a man who lived in an era of kings and emperors relegated himself to the role of a humble citizen rather than embrace the trappings of authority. The most amazed guests were usually from foreign countries, particularly those where dictatorship was the rule. Although these visitors learned that Washington had real flaws, such as being a slaveholder, they understood that greatness, though imperfect, is still greatness.
In recent years, many Americans have lost that perspective. Some, tying Washington to modern-day racism, have even vandalized his statues and magnified his flaws to be his defining characteristics – despite the fact he was one of the most progressive founders on the issue of race. Meanwhile, countless people around the world continue to recognize his accomplishments.
We Americans used to recognize them as well. After Congress made his birthday (Feb. 22) an official federal holiday in 1879, we paid homage to Washington every year with parades and ceremonies. Starting in 1971, however, the significance of that day began diminishing. The Uniform Monday Holiday Act shifted observation of his birthday from the 22nd to the third Monday of February. One motivation for this date change was to move it closer to Abraham Lincoln’s birthday (Feb. 12) so that both events could be combined into “Presidents’ Day.” During the ensuing congressional debate, Tennessee Congressman Dan Kuykendall warned, “If we do this, 10 years from now our schoolchildren will not know or care when George Washington was born.” That’s exactly what happened, even though Congress had not changed the name of “Washington’s Birthday.”
After noticing the day occasionally fell closer to Lincoln’s birthday, car and mattress salesmen dubbed it the snappier “Presidents’ Day,” and it stuck. As a result, most people today are unaware that the federal holiday on the third Monday of February is still officially named “Washington’s Birthday.” While many cities and states still refer to the holiday by its official name, most Americans call it “Presidents’ Day.”
My birth country, the Philippines, honors its national hero José Rizal each year. Turkey has a holiday to remember its founding father, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Latin America has Simón Bolívar Day, India has Gandhi Jayanti, and Mexico has El Día de Benito Juárez. These countries celebrate these figures even though they, like Washington, reflected the times in which they lived. While these other countries remember their leaders, year after year in America, we ignore our greatest Founding Father on his birthday.
Other than Washington, we Americans honor only one other person’s birthday as a holiday: Martin Luther King, Jr. We don’t have a “Civil Rights Leaders’ Day.” Instead, we’ve chosen specifically to remember the most prominent American civil rights leader by his actual name. Yet, by celebrating “Presidents’ Day,” we’ve combined Washington with less esteemed chief executives such as Millard Fillmore and Andrew Johnson.
The “Father of Our Country” deserves better. His story has the power to inspire people of all backgrounds to demand more from their leaders. As beneficiaries of Washington’s legacy, we Americans can showcase that story to a world where tyrants still abound. We can start by remembering that it isn’t “Presidents’ Day” – it’s Washington’s Birthday.
Richard Lim hosts the This American President podcast.