Time to Retire Presidents' Day?

 by Michael C. Dorf

Today is Presidents' Day--or, as we say here at Cornell Law School, Monday February 20, which we treat as no different from any other typical Monday during the academic year. In today's brief essay, I'll offer two reasons to abandon Presidents' Day.

(1) There's something more than a little problematic about honoring George Washington, whose Mt. Vernon estate and thus his livelihood did, after all, rest on the enslavement of hundreds of people, most of whom were not in fact emancipated after his death. Needless to say, stripping Washington of the honors our national culture affords him is not going to happen any time soon. There are obvious practical obstacles, like renaming the capital district, the Washington Memorial, Washington state, and much more.

There is also a range of reasonable views about whether and how to honor people for their honorable accomplishments despite the evil they also perpetrated. One might conclude that honoring the likes of Robert E. Lee because of his efforts on behalf of the Confederacy is substantially different from honoring Washington despite his role as an enslaver. Even so, while it is thus unlikely that we will start de-Washingtonizing America generally, we might think that it's not necessary to treat his birthday as a national holiday, especially one that comes during Black History Month.

Ah, but what about Abraham Lincoln? One can rightly point out that Lincoln's moniker "The Great Emancipator" is unearned, given that the Emancipation Proclamation did not even purport to emancipate anybody in the slave states that were loyal to the Union. And as illustrated by the recent criticism of sports reporter Chris Berman over his odd seeming crediting of Lincoln for the fact that the most recent Superbowl featured two Black quarterbacks, many people are appropriately dubious about holding Lincoln up as some sort of civil rights hero or great white savior. That's fair enough and reason not to celebrate Lincoln for ending slavery (because he didn't). Even so, he could be celebrated for preserving the Union. So a national holiday for Lincoln's birthday could be justified on that ground, I suppose.

(2) But that assumes that we should be marking the great achievements of historic figures by celebrating their birthdays. It's familiar and thus often unquestioned but nonetheless odd to honor or remember people based on their dates of birth -- when they were infants who hadn't yet accomplished anything -- rather than, say, on dates that have some connection to their achievements.

Hold on! What about Christmas? Well, what about it? Celebrations of the birth of Jesus didn't get attached to December 25 until centuries afterward and then primarily to take advantage of pre-existing pagan celebrations of the winter solstice to which they could be attached. Even today, Orthodox churches celebrate Christmas on January 7. And although I hesitate to say this as a non-Christian, it does seem a bit odd to celebrate the birth of Jesus with a very special holiday but not to mark an even more special day for, say, one or more of the miracles described in the Gospels (putting aside Easter).

To be sure, the Gospels don't say that Jesus fed the multitudes with just five loaves and two fishes on August 23 or that he walked on water on May 24. Accordingly, when dealing with ancient events for which there isn't good evidence of their timing (or that they even occurred), we need to select a date somewhat arbitrarily. To be clear, I'm not proposing that Congress redefine the date of Christmas. Because so many Americans already celebrate Christmas on December 25, a national holiday on that date as an accommodation to their schedules makes sense.

More broadly, however, we might treat a departure from birthday-focused celebrations as an opportunity. Take the celebration/commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. A holiday in January, so close to the return of students to school after Christmas and New Year's Day, is ill-timed. The King holiday could be attached to late August in commemoration of his "I have a dream" speech. Or if that's too close to Labor Day, how about mid-April, keyed to his Letter from Birmingham Jail? Figures who accomplished great things worthy of a date of national remembrance will have accomplished many great things, giving us some flexibility in choosing a date that both has historical significance and fits well with the rest of the calendar.

Of course, it's probably too late to change some of the holidays that have cultural significance quite apart from their official recognition. Take American independence. Obviously, it would be weird to celebrate the 4th of July on, say, the 12th of March, but if we were starting from scratch and looking for a date to commemorate the nation's birth, we would have other options. For example, we could choose October 19 (when Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown) or thereabouts. Or even more radically, we might choose April 9 (when Lee surrendered at Appomattox) in recognition that the principles of liberty and equality at the heart of the American creed don't even begin to be taken seriously until after the Civil War. However, I acknowledge that we aren't starting from scratch with respect to the country's birthday.

For my money, the date I'd change if I could is Thanksgiving. For one thing, given subsequent events that link the commemoration of Plymouth in 1631 with colonists' genocide against the Native population, there's something creepy about the late November date. Moreover, the timing is inconvenient for families who find it necessary to travel in late November and then again just a month later in late December. The Canadian Thanksgiving in early October seems like a much better choice.

Surely something happened in October that warrants celebration. Repurposing Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples' Day has much to recommend it, but it's hard to see a serious observation of that day as a time for family cheer as opposed to somber reflection. Maybe we can supplement the Fourth of July with a thanksgiving to commemorate the Cornwallis surrender. Or take your pick from these important October events.

Meanwhile, fine: Happy Presidents' Day.