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OPINION | EDITORIAL: Washington, on his birthday

Or, as he was called, His Excellency February 22, 2021 at 3:00 a.m.

Somebody is going to have to explain why Presidents Day was last Monday, when George Washington's birthday is today. This year Feb. 22 falls on a Monday, so why not have the holiday on the same day as the date of the first president's birthday?

Actually, George Washington wasn't born on Feb. 22. (It's complicated.) When he was born, the date on the calendar said Feb. 11, and his birthday would only become Feb. 22 in 1752, when the English-speaking world switched from the old Julian to the current Gregorian calendar, skipping 11 days. (At the time, some folks were inclined to protest against the change. Because the powers that be were taking 11 days from their lives. Who says an uninformed populace is a new phenomenon?)

While somebody is explaining why the holiday was last Monday, somebody might also explain why in the name of James Buchanan we celebrate something called Presidents Day to begin with. Are we supposed to celebrate all presidents of the United States? Including Nixon and both Johnsons and the nondescript Jacksonians that Andrew Jackson, that old Indian killer, hand-picked after he left office?

Are we supposed to salute, honor and toast the likes of Millard Fillmore and Chester A. Arthur? Some of us would rather just close the banks on Lincoln's birthday on Feb. 12 and close the post office on Feb. 22 for Washington's, and leave it at that. A few of us might want to make a toast on Dwight Eisenhower's birthday, if we only could remember when it is.

Today is Feb. 22. Today is George Washington's birthday. Today should be marked, if not actually commemorated with revelry. From everything we've read about George Washington, revelry didn't fit his manner anyway.

According to a Rasmussen poll conducted a few years back, George Washington was ranked as the most favorable president in American history, even above Abraham Lincoln. Imagine that. A man who probably never had a close friend, who kept all acquaintances and colleagues at a distance, is generally viewed most favorably.

But wasn't George Washington born with a powdered wig and a sword by his side? We're not kidding when we say one of the biographies of the man is titled "The birth of Mr. Washington." His gravity was an acquired characteristic. He spent the young part of his life practicing for the old part: That is, he copied out rules by which gentlemen conducted themselves, and put those ideas into practice. (First rule: "Every action done in company ought to be done with some sign of respect to those that are present.")

If he was a red-blooded American with impulses, he'd control those impulses and, instead of fighting among the Jeffersons and Hamiltons, he'd listen to them and make his best decision. Doubtless with a frown.

So how did this man become so admired, if not loved, among his countrymen? Could it be as simple as being the first president?

No. He is also this nation's first hero general. And this continent's Cincinnatus. He walked away from power. But first he had to help create a powerful nation. Or one that would become so.

John Ferling wrote a much dog-eared book in 2007 called "Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence." As often as we quote from it, including today, we have to disagree with the title. There was no "almost" about it.

The famous scene of the British ships being blown to sea as General Washington retreated from Brooklyn is only one time that Washington got lucky. It seemed, outside a winter at Valley Forge, that the small American army was the beneficiary of nature's luck.

A few years after the Battle of Long Island, the British fleet closed in on a smaller French/American group of ships in the middle of disembarking near Rhode Island, when a hurricane stopped things cold and wet--sending both fleets to their respective corners for repairs. And later drought caused the Spanish to start trading with the upstart colonialists.

And besides Mother Nature, there were other miracles to be witnessed. Including turning that ramshackle mob of men into an army, which George Washington did. That might have been more daunting than wishing for a hurricane.

The men that George Washington led in the beginning of the American Revolution made up an army in name only. They made no impression on the British, or their fellow countrymen.

The colonial papers bemoaned the state of the fighting force--and those were the pro-independence papers. It seemed only the British soldiers were on a mission early on, including the mission to hang rebel generals and politicians. Even Washington himself, as he watched the British close in on him at the end of 1776, muttered to an aide: "My neck does not feel as though it was made for a halter."

But he would escape. Time and time again. Only to show up on the map in another place, ready to retreat again. Imagine the frustration of the redcoats and their officers.

Washington's most important characteristic was perseverance. And after each retreat, after each time Congress didn't live up to its martial promises, after a general named Arnold tried to betray West Point to the British, after each bit of bad news, George Washington persevered.

The British might hold the upper hand, and all of the seas, and the states might have withheld troops for their own self-interests on the home front, and the Tories might watch his every move, and his own generals might write letters to friendly politicians about their interest in taking his place, but Washington persisted. And a country was born.

With its own troubles.

George Washington would have to sit at the constitutional convention, to keep it from splitting apart. For without a Washington sitting in front of the Founders as they put together the still-enduring Constitution of the United States, would the factions compromise enough to create it? And after the Constitution was realized, he'd really have to go to work--for eight years as the first commander-in-chief.

There was a reason he kept having to do things first: Perhaps nobody else could. And he would be noted as being first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.

Naysayers and the cancel culture spreading across the country today, like a cancer, would cancel George Washington because he was a man of his time. They'd also cancel Abraham Lincoln and many others. They don't seem to realize that there are only a few indispensable people in American history, who come around just as needed, and although imperfect themselves, make this Union more perfect. And continue to do so, let's pray.

We recognize his birth today mainly because he helped birth this nation, and was instrumental in doing so at most of the early points. And he deserves much of the recognition for there being a United States of America today.

The third Monday of February is 1/365th of the calendar, and he deserves much more. Although we would suggest that the fourth Monday is a better holiday, especially every seven years or so, when it squares with Feb. 22.


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