Americans might better appreciate our nation’s greatest virtue-the moral vision that has kept us free-if we returned to celebrating George Washington’s birthday as George Washington’s birthday.
Washington was born Feb. 22, 1732. In 1885, Congress made his birthday a federal holiday. In 1968, however, to create a three-day weekend, Congress passed another law (that took effect in 1971) moving this holiday to the third Monday in February-a day that cannot coincide with Washington’s actual birthday.
I learned all this from an excellent piece of research published in The Hill by Jason Bezis, a recent editor of the California Law Review. What’s more, wrote Bezis, since 1971 many editors and politicians have erroneously erased Washington’s Birthday altogether.
"At various times, such reference resources as the World Almanac, American Heritage Dictionary, Columbia Encyclopedia and Microsoft Encarta have incorrectly declared the Washington’s Birthday federal holiday dead," he wrote. "The White House and members of Congress have ignored federal law by referring to President’s Day in press releases and speeches."
Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R.-Md.) is now sponsoring a bill to compel all federal agencies to refer to the holiday by its legal name, George Washington’s Birthday.
The politically correct may oppose it. The Founding Fathers, particularly those from the South, they may argue, should not be celebrated because they owned slaves or at least tolerated slavery.
There is some merit in this argument. A national holiday celebrating a Founder who lived and died an unrepentant slaveholder would lack the unifying power a national holiday ought to have.
But Washington was not such a man. His personal moral struggle with the evil of slavery demonstrates the liberating force of the American idea itself.
Before the Revolution, Washington was a brutal slave master. After it, in stark contrast to most of his plantation-owning peers, he was transformed, first, into a quiet abolitionist and, finally, into a liberator. In his last earthly act-a will freeing his slaves and setting up a trust for the care of the elderly and the education of the young-he created a legacy in his private life worthy of the Constitution that is the legacy of his public life.
In George Washington and Slavery-A Documentary Portrayal, Fritz Hirschfeld chronicles Washington’s transformation.
The most shocking document: In 1766, the young Washington blithely asked a ship’s captain to sell a defiant young slave to a West Indian plantation in exchange for "One Hhd of best Molasses, One Ditto of best Rum" and other assorted food and drink.
But after 1772 Washington rarely bought a slave and never sold one. In 1779, he explained to his cousin Lund Washington, overseer of Mount Vernon, "My scruples arise from a reluctance in offering these people at public vendue."
In 1797, he wrote his nephew Lawrence Lewis: "I wish to my soul that the Legislature of this State could see the policy of a gradual Abolition of Slavery: it would prevt. much future mischief."
As his surplus slaves increased, Washington’s rejection of slave trafficking threatened to bankrupt Mount Vernon. But, says Hirschfeld, "There is no indication that Washington ever seriously entertained the idea of jettisoning his resolution to sell none of his slaves. Rather he took the unusual step, for those times and circumstances and for a man of his class and stature as one of the largest plantation proprietors in Virginia, of arranging to emancipate all 124 of his Mount Vernon slaves."
Biographer James Thomas Flexner writes: "To [Edmund] Randolph [his former attorney general], he revealed a conclusion that tore at his most deeply seated habits and emotions. He stated that should the Union separate between North and South, ‘he had made up his mind to move and be of the northern part.’"
The Founders declared in 1776 that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. Washington took that not only as a challenge to the British, but as a challenge to himself. Like all men, he was imperfect. He might have refused to ever own slaves, or he might have freed them all when he was still alive. But, in the end, like few Virginians of his time, he got it right.
That is worth celebrating today.