Letter From A Friend

476px-Rembrandt_Peale_-_George_Washington_(Porthole_type)_-_Google_Art_ProjectHappy Birthday, George Washington! Yes, today is the birthday (in 1732) of our country’s first President.

I think it is a day for honoring the contribution President Washington made at a crucial time in the birth of our nation, but also, to honor his efforts that came earlier, before the possibility of our becoming an independent nation was widely considered.

There are a host of resources available to study and acquaint oneself with this man. There are also plenty of resources that dispense with the usual myths that have persisted about Washington. There’s no point in my retelling those here.

Instead, I thought I’d approach this post from a different angle, interspersing my own observations about his life.

The Mount Vernon website has a webpage entitled Key Facts About George Washington. One of the facts that stood out for me was that Washington never attended college. Beneath the fact, there’s a blurb that says (in part) he was “always sensitive” about his lack of formal education. (When he was eleven years old, George’s father died and funds weren’t available to George for receiving an education in England.)

In other words, Washington’s education developed along an unconventional trajectory. He was partially homeschooled and also received instruction from a local church sexton and eventually for a brief period from a schoolmaster. [Are you involved in home educating your children? If so, be inspired by Washington’s story!]

By the time George was sixteen, his education took another turn. He had already joined a surveying party and within a year was surveying western points of the Virginia colony. His educational experience advanced from book-learning to practical application.george-washington-surveyor 2

Think about that, if you will. A sixteen or seventeen year old wandering the far spaces of the “civilized” world of that time! His mode of transportation may have been an animal (horse?) but it’s just as likely he was often afoot carrying a pack of limited supplies, passing through untamed regions, facing dangers from the elements, wild animals and even the potential hostility from native tribes.

Few parents today would desire such an adventure for their teenage offspring!

And yet I think Washington’s frontier education was in many ways superior to what teenagers receive in the relative ease of today’s stereotypically cushy classroom. (I daresay it was also superior to the formal education he might have received from proper tutors back in England.) Rather than a stultifying classroom, Washington’s school room was the whole world in which he lived!

Certainly, there are plenty of discussions online referencing the leadership qualities of Washington as well as his apparent reticence to seek a lead position, but his concurrent willingness to be recruited and to serve, both admirable traits. Was his reticence really a false humility? I don’t get that sense. I think he was willing to believe there might be another person better equipped and capable than he and that’s why he didn’t immediately foist himself on an assembly.

I think his genuine humility was just as evident in his readiness to hang up the mantle. He wasn’t seeking accolades for himself, but desired to do the best job he could for the nation and its people. In my view, there are too few of his caliber around today! In general, it seems the majority of public people (I refuse to call them “public servants” because they’re mostly serving themselves) seek the accolades and the power and the influence that comes with the position.

I remember learning about George Washington in grade school, junior high and high school. Perhaps the most striking thing I’ve carried with me all my life came from his Farewell Address. I can’t remember when I first heard a recitation of this address, but I recognized Washington’s words demonstrated how unique he was in contrast to the people in government with whom I was familiar.

In his Farewell Address, he warned against polarizing political parties. Anyone familiar with that? He warned against the dangers of government borrowing. Can you say seventeen trillion in debt? He spoke about the importance of religion and morality being a critical foundation for a free people.

Most strikingly for me, Washington urged his country’s future leaders to shun needless or extended foreign entanglements, citing the likelihood that such alliances have the power to draw our nation into wars. Indeed.

I was eight years old when things began to unravel in Vietnam. During my high school years, the Vietnam War was being waged and escalated by President Johnson. Time and time again as the images of that war played out on my family’s television screen, I remember thinking how our leaders were ignoring George Washington’s wise counsel in the Farewell Address!

I am amazed how Washington’s Farewell Address carries a currency today … more than two hundred years from its first reading. Read it now and see if you agree!

Un_President’s Day

washingtonIf you went to the Post Office today and were greeted by a shuttered window, you learned the hard way today is officially celebrated as Washington’s Birthday thanks to the 1968 adoption of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, first effective in 1971. This act essentially standardized federal holidays to conform to Monday-only status (enabling three-day weekends).

The day is generally known and recognized by many states as Presidents’ Day. (When you search Wikipedia for the term Presidents’ Day, you’re redirected to the Washington’s Birthday entry.) Some states deem this day a dual holiday, celebrating the births of both Washington and Lincoln. The crazy thing is neither man’s birthday falls on this day, the 17th! Washington’s birthdate is February 22nd, while Lincoln’s is February 12th.

Here in my home state of Arkansas, in addition to its George Washington birthday status, the day is also set aside to commemorate Daisy Gatson Bates, a civil rights activist involved in the 1957 Little Rock integration efforts at Central High School.lincoln_sketch

Ah, now maybe I didn’t sleep well last night … I don’t know but I’m feeling cranky. My tendency is to think this “day” being set aside is another irritating symptom of weightier issues.

Certainly, as a federal holiday, lots of people enjoy this paid day off and they do so … on the taxpayer’s dime. Those of us who don’t have paid days away from jobs might have a hard time justifying our compulsory generosity. (I recall the US carrying some $17 trillion in debt. How much does each federal holiday cost us?)

Yes, I’m aware this Presidents’ Day is just intended as an observance which means I’m free to commemorate the actual birthdays if I choose and as I see fit. And yes, I understand the Congress − in its creation of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act − was simply trying to introduce some efficiency and uniformity into government operations.

ASIDE:  Did I actually write that? Using the words Congress and efficiency in the same sentence? Did anyone else trip over that sentence?

But ignore the costs of “shutting down government” (wasn’t that considered an objectionable thing just last fall?) for this or other federal holidays! Who among us believes that making a holiday for all Presidents … or even some Presidents truly honors them all? In my view, designating one day to honor all dilutes the honor they are due! It’s akin to deciding as a family to incorporate all birthdays into one celebration … yuck! Nobody feels special or appreciated then!

I also have something of a bone to pick with my own state. While I have nothing against honoring Daisy Gatson Bates, I’m bewildered that the date chosen to honor her coincides with Washington’s birthday. There are designated days for memorializing other Arkansas notables, but this one − coupled as it is with our first President’s birthday − puzzles me as a combination. Did the legislators simply pull a date out of a hat?

(If you happen to know the background for this choice, dating from 2001 I think, please let me know!)

I have already acknowledged Abraham Lincoln on this blog here. When our first President’s birthday actually occurs, I expect I’ll have a post about him as well. But my natural contrariness causes me to reject this day, this so-called Presidents’ Day for many reasons beyond what I’ve already mentioned.

As an example of how the silliness of Presidents’ Day has proliferated, today’s local news teased its opening by declaring:  It’s Presidents’ Day! And the day wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the Clinton House Museum!

Indeed, I must rush along now! I think the place is only open until 5 p.m.

… Oops! They closed at 4:30 p.m. Maybe next year?