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 February 22, 1732. In 1885, Congress made
his birthday a national 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 never falls on
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 Presidents' Day in press releases and speeches."
Republican Rep. Roscoe Bartlett 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
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
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 that: "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.