Prior to 1971, the American people marked the birth of our first president, George Washington, on his actual birthday, Feb. 22. But an ill-advised law that took effect that year moved the remembrance to the third Monday of February, and it is now known by the vague term "Presidents Day." (Or "President's Day" or "Presidents' Day," depending on whom you ask.)
The idea was to boost the economy by creating a three-day weekend on which people presumably would do more shopping. Perhaps it has accomplished that. Many stores have well-patronized Presidents Day sales.
But Washington was not just any leader. He was the father of our country and arguably our greatest president. Even Abraham Lincoln did not presume to be Washington's match. Speaking in 1842, on the 110th anniversary of Washington's birth, Lincoln had this to say: "On that name a eulogy is expected. It cannot be. To add brightness to the sun, or glory to the name of Washington, is alike impossible. Let none attempt it. In solemn awe pronounce the name, and in its naked, deathless splendor, leave it shining on."
Washington's unique role in our history makes it appropriate that there is a move afoot in Congress to restore his birthday observance to Feb. 22.
"George Washington is no mere president, to be jumbled with Millard Fillmore and Chester A. Arthur," Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, said during a recent hearing on the legislation in Congress. She lamented the "profound historical illiteracy" of many Americans, which she said "bodes ill for the future of the republic."
Restoring Washington's birthday to its rightful date won't correct all that, of course. But it would acknowledge the importance of historical accuracy and draw deserved attention to a man without whose steady leadership our young republic might not have survived.