Monday, February 16, 2015

President's (Presidents') Day

So, one of the holidays that was tepidly celebrated when I was growing up was Washington's Birthday, which was often paired with Lincoln's Birthday; the only sign of either being the occasional store that wd offer a 'Lincoln's Birthday/ Washington's Birthday' sale. Like Arbor Day and Flag Day, it was the kind of holiday that was easy to ignore, stirring up none of the excitement of St. Patrick's Day,* or Easter, or even Groundhog's Day or April Fool's Day. Then they created the Monday Holidays (modeled, I assume, on England's 'Bank Holiday'), combining Washington's Birthday with Lincoln's Birthday, renaming it 'Presidents' Day', and moving it to a Monday that fell between the two.

Or so I thought. But this year I got to wondering: is it President's Day or Presidents' Day?  Does the name of the holiday actually commemorate all presidents rather than just the two most popular ones? Even the really terrible ones, like Harding and Hoover and Nixon (none of whom is ever likely to get a holiday honoring him any other way)?

The answer to that turns out to be complex, but seems to come down to Congress's intent having been to combine the two traditional days honoring Washington and Lincoln into one and to rename them, but the actual bill they passed having in effect moved only Washington's day and failed to officially rename it. In the overall scheme of things it doesn't matter much, since lots of state governments added Lincoln's Birthday as a state holiday that falls on the same day as the national holiday of Washington's Birthday ("President's Day").  Some state have other combinations, the most unusual of which is my home state of Arkansas, where it turns out the holiday honors Washington and also Daisy Gatson Bates -- a name I'm sorry to say I didn't recognize, though once I looked her up I knew immediately why she's so honored: she was the one who organized the integration efforts at Little Rock High against Faubus's obstructionism.**

Personally, I've decided to indulge my inner historian and use the day to commemorate some of our more neglected presidents. Like John Tyler (the one responsible for establishing the precedent that upon the president's death the vice president becomes president, not just 'acting president'), Chester A. Arthur (who was significantly less corrupt that expected), Wm H. Taft (who actually got passed much of the progressive reform legislature Teddy Roosevelt usually gets the credit for), and Calvin Coolidge (who deserves the faint praise of having been better in the office than either the president who proceeded him and the president who followed him, which not every president can say).

So, celebrate the president(s)-of-your-choice day.

--John R.

*When, after all, you'd get hit or pinched if you forgot to wear green. Or sometimes even if you did.

**in my defense, all this took place the year before I was born. Also, no one talked about this when I was growing up. The first I heard about the events in Little Rock in 1957ff was in the mid-eighties when I was already in graduate school up at Marquette. And, I'm sorry to say, despite the valiant integration efforts of Bates and the Little Rock Nine et al, none of the schools I went to in Magnolia, Little Rock, Fordyce, Jonesburo, or Magnolia (again) were integrated until the year I was in sixth grade, 1970-71.

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