There is no Presidents Day.
Yes, you read the title correctly. There is no Presidents Day. You might be thinking to yourself, "Of course there's a Presidents Day. It's the third Monday of February. Just try going to the bank tomorrow." However, that's not quite correct.
George Washington was the model for every president that followed him, and he is still considered one of, if not the most important figure in our country's history. He commanded the Continental Army during our War for Independence, presided over the Constitutional Convention in 1787 and served as the first president of the United States. Although he could have, Washington chose not to run for a third term of office, setting a precedent that was honored until Franklin Roosevelt's third term. In 2012, a poll named Washington the greatest foe in the history of the British Empire.
In 1879, a federal holiday honoring George Washington was created by an act of Congress. Initially, the holiday was only for government offices in Washington, D.C., but in 1885, it was expanded to include all federal offices. This was the first federal holiday to honor an American president and was celebrated on his birthday, Feb. 22. It remained the only federal holiday to celebrate an individual until the creation of Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983.
The U.S. Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act in 1968, and in 1971, Washington's Birthday was first observed on the third Monday in February. This meant Washington's Birthday would be observed between Feb. 15-21 and never on Washington's actual birthday.
Since this new holiday would always fall before Washington's actual birthday and after Abraham Lincoln's birthday, a push was made to rename the holiday Presidents Day. Many states already had a similar holiday to honor Lincoln, and it seemed like a natural fit. However, this proved contentious with lawmakers from Washington's home state of Virginia, and the holiday officially remained Washington's Birthday. Over the years, the holiday has become known in popular culture as Presidents Day, but a federal holiday named Presidents Day does not actually exist.
I think most elected officials try to pattern themselves after Washington and Lincoln, at least in part. I know I do. The two of them are almost always named as the two greatest presidents in the history of our republic. Their example of honesty, dedication and selfless public service provide an example to anyone entrusted with performing a duty to the public.
Unfortunately, I think their example is sometimes forgotten or ignored. This is most noticeable in election years and especially in presidential election years. Politics always had and always will have an ugly side. Washington himself was assailed by the press in his final months in office, accused of being ambitious and greedy. But recently, the manner in which election campaigns are run has taken a serious turn for the worse. Where once debates were held with decorum and respect, it seems more and more our political discourse is divisive, accusatory and sometimes downright nasty.
I don't know what Lincoln and Washington would think about today's political atmosphere. I know what I think about it. Elected officials are here to serve the people. While we're here to fight for our principles and beliefs, I don't think that is accomplished by muckraking and mudslinging. The people of this country don't always agree with one another, and they never will. We can blame the state of our political discourse on the internet, the 24-hour news cycle or 100 other culprits, but when we belittle or demonize those we disagree with, we diminish both their humanity and our own.
State Sen. Mike Bernskoetter, R-Jefferson City, represents Missouri's 6th Senate District, and shares his perspective on statehouse issues twice a month.