Wikimedia Commons
"General George Washington Resigning his Commission," painted by John Trumbull, was placed in the rotunda in 1824.

There is no Presidents Day. Congress moved the celebration of George Washington’s birthday to the third Monday of February to create another three-day weekend, which created a boon to retail sales, but it never actually declared the name change to Presidents Day. A nod to all who have served in the highest office in the land is good, but sticking with Washington may have been the better focal point. Washington, though, wouldn’t have approved. He would have wanted the focus to be on the American people.

Washington was an extraordinary leader, among the greatest in all of human history. After the Revolutionary War he had access to absolute power. He could have been, and scores of Americans wanted him to be, king. Many declared him the indispensable and irreplaceable man. Sadly, most men and women hearing such accolades of indispensability listen to that siren song, assume it is a choir of angels and then begin to believe it and act on it. Washington knew better and rejected the throne of irreplaceability while setting a standard of servant-leadership for all to follow.

Washington saw that citizens looking for a political savior to waltz in from the federal government to solve every problem would weaken the nation and absolve citizens of personal responsibility. Ultimately, this kind of thinking ends in an imperial presidency with political pals and pawns running, and often ruining, the nation. This never ends well for everyday citizens.

If the country follows Washington’s example and views political leaders as replaceable, both they and elections will become less consequential because government will become less consequential in the lives of American people.

In the rotunda of the Capitol hangs a painting of Gen. George Washington resigning his commission before the Continental Congress. In one of the few instances in history, the commander of the conquering forces did not assume complete authority, control and power, but he instead returned it to the citizens and their representatives.

Washington clearly understood that power is not something to amass, barter with or cling to, nor is it a tool for pursuing political purposes and self-promotion. While many proclaimed him to be indispensable and irreplaceable, Washington knew the future of the nation wasn’t dependent on him. He believed America’s destiny would be secured, down through the ages, by individual citizens who would enter the world’s stage, make a contribution in their homes, communities and country and then travel on.

Presidents Day is a good time to reflect on all the presidents who have served — each offers examples, good and bad, with important leadership lessons for citizens to consider.

President Donald Trump has hinted recently at having a large military parade to celebrate our strength as a nation. A real show of American might doesn’t require tanks and missiles or even a national holiday. The country’s power isn’t in its military or in its presidents — it is in its people and communities.

34 comments on this story

Another three-day weekend is nice. The nation should, however, stop and remember that more important than who is sitting in the Oval Office is who is sitting at the kitchen table. More important than who is sitting behind the resolute desk in the West Wing is who is sitting behind the desk of a small business or who is kneeling by the side of the desk of a struggling student. More important than who is sitting in the situation room is who is sitting in the living room. This is what makes the difference for America.