Monday, February 20, 2012

Against P Day

(Becoming a tradition -- I just rerun this old thing. For a different perspective, see Matt Glassman. Also, probably light posting here today because I'll be over at Greg's place all day, and so I also won't do separate posts following up on what I do there...but I'll likely have some things here, too).


Presidents Day is a terrible idea for a holiday.  Just an awful idea.  In this republic, there's absolutely no good reason to take a day to honor our presidents.

On the other hand, Washington's Birthday is a perfectly good idea.  If we're going to honor great Americans, I'm not going to argue with those who put George Washington first on the list of those to be honored.  In fact, the official federal holiday is Washington's Birthday, but lots of states have renamed it to Presidents Day or something similar.

The consensus Three Greatest Presidents are Washington, Lincoln, and (Franklin) Roosevelt, and I wouldn't argue with any celebration of those three. The other two Greatest Men Who Were Presidents are Jefferson and the sadly undercommemorated Madison, and I'm also on board with honoring them (I'm not a huge Jefferson fan, but I don't really object to his status as a great American. Want to argue Adams?  Ike?  Take it to comments).  On the other hand, I'm also pretty comfortable with Washington and King being the only two Americans honored with national holidays.

So, Happy Washington's Birthday, even if it isn't actually Washington's birthday, and even if most of what you're seeing are references to Presidents Day, President's Day, or Presidents' Day -- any way you spell it, a really bad idea.  Which reminds me -- if you happen to think of James Buchanan, Franklin Pierce, or Richard Nixon today, I think what you're supposed to do is spit twice over your left shoulder to avoid bad luck.

15 comments:

  1. "The other two Greatest Men Who Were Presidents are Jefferson and the sadly undercommemorated Madison,"

    I notice that you carefully say Madison was a great man rather than a great President. Of course, my perspective as a Canadian is probably coloured somewhat by his presiding over the invasion of Canada and the burning of Toronto (then known as York). My high school history books told us not to blame all Americans- that New Englanders referred to it as Mad Madison's War. I would have thought that a commander-in-chief who couldn't produce an army to rout a few British regulars, a rag tag militia and some Indian warriors, and who couldn't defend your capital city against the British raid to punish the burning of Toronto would be sliding dangerously close to the George Bush category of incompetent Presidents. Perhaps his achievements in domestic policy unlike Bush's, compensated for his abysmal performance as commander in chief.

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    1. Madison, as President: he's the only wartime president who didn't sacrifice civil liberties. That's something!

      Ranking him depends a lot on how you apportion blame/credit for the war starting, I think (I'm thinking within the US, but I suppose internationally as well).

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    2. As I understand it, Canadians are taught that annexing Canada was the main goal and purpose of the War of 1812. That goal was promoted by some Westerners who blamed the British--the lieutenant governor of Upper Canada in particular and not entirely without reason--for inciting the Indians against western U.S. settlements (which in those days meant places like Ohio and Michigan). The basic point of the war, however, related to free trade, neutral rights, and being treated like an independent country. The British kept us from trading with the French because of the Napoleonic Wars and, being short of manpower, seized some 6,000 men off American ships, declared that they were English, and impressed them into the Royal Navy. (To be sure, they had a tendency to believe anyone born in England was English forever, regardless of where they had moved to, but the US didn't see it that way. I understand that if you can document that you're descended from one of those men, the British will give you a passport even today.) Some people argued at the time that, since the war was to be fought primarily over maritime rights, it should be fought primarily on the sea. The problem with that was that the Royal Navy had approximately 1,000 ships (roughly 600 of them available for use at any given time, wooden sailing ships being what they are). The US Navy, on the other hand, had 20 ships (14 of them available at any given time). So it was decided that the war would be fought in Canada, which was much closer than England and lightly defended (at least in the beginning). It was also hoped that the Napoleonic Wars would keep most of their forces busy far away from us, but Napoleon's unsuccessful invasion of Russia kind of put the kabosh on that. The basic strategy was to seize Canada and hold it hostage until the British gave in on the issues of free trade, neutral rights, and so forth. Of course, it didn't work out so well. Now I suppose it's an open question whether we actually would have given it back if we had ever managed to take it, something we'll never know. It's also an open question--actually raised at the time, I believe--whether the British would have given up anything to get it back. (Nothing personal, Johnny, that's just the way it went.) As it turned out, the war was basically a draw and it ended with both sides returning to the status quo ante, but within about two or three years the British came to the conclusion that--with all the other things they had to worry about--life would just be easier if they could keep us on their side. From about 1818 they pursued a policy of negotiating their differences with us and pretty much followed it for the next century. (Of course, the 200th anniversary of the war is this year.)

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  2. Shouldn't we just have a "Patriot's Day" where all American individuals are celebrated (presidents, important historical figures who helped shape America, as well as the average well-meaning citizen?

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  3. I think "President's Day" only honors two Presidents; Washington and Lincoln, both born in February. My memory dimly tells me that when I was a small child in the 1950s we celebrated both birthdays separately -- on the 12th and the 22nd. But, at some point (during the Nixon administration?) it was decided to celebrate one holiday for both, always on a Monday in February, creating a 3 day weekend.

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    1. Snopes has a good article on P day. It really and truly is a weird, smushed up amalgamation of Washington, Lincoln, and then good ol' plain marketing (seriously....it being on a Mondy was pushed by travel agents!).

      My favorite part is the Subway ad I keep seeing for Februany foot longs. It features, get this, for the MONTH, Washingon, Lincoln, and, wait for it, Franklin, horsing around.
      Thankfully, they get it right that this is President's month, and not a month dedicated to any other group at all.

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    2. I second everything esmense said: the two separate holidays smashed in one and then shifted to a Monday to make three-day weekends to encourage tourism. If I remember correctly, Labor Day was always a Monday holiday. Memorial Day, Washington's Birthday, Columbus Day, etc. had been determined by DATE, not a specific day of the week. (Confirmed by Wikipedia)

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    3. OK, but: the actual federal holiday is still Washington's Birthday. As far as who "Presidents" or "President's" or "Presidents'" Day might honor, I'm not going to go through state resolutions, but I don't think there's any basis for saying that it "really" honors Washington and Lincoln only.

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  4. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has a "Lives of the Week" series, which features a different bio every day, available without subscription for a week. Apparently the good folks at ODNB agree with JB because today's bio is (drum-roll) James Madison!

    The link is http://www.oxforddnb.com/public/lotw/1.html.

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    1. I like Truman. He's not a top three president, and he's certainly not a Great American Who Was President, by which I meant those (Madison, Jefferson, Ike, Adams) who had important contributions outside the presidency.

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    2. Would you place any 20th-century presidents higher than Truman but lower than FDR?

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    3. Kylo: I'd put TR there, but I've always been a TR fan.

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    4. Kylo: Depends how you rank foreign vs domestic policy. Truman did very well on the former, at a crucial time for the world, but was possibly the worst of the century (with Wilson) on the latter.

      It also depends how you rate FDR, of course. Personally, I'd put Nixon below FDR and ahead of Truman.

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  6. Let's not forget Benjamin Franklin, the only President of the United States who was never President of the United States.

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