For more than a century, Presidents Day epitomized the inconsequential national holiday. Its significance, for most of us, begins and ends with a day off work (if we even get one). But that attitude must now change. Yes, I come to you with an important message: Presidents Day matters.
The reason the holiday is suddenly relevant has of course to do with Donald Trump — as well as another president, the one for whom the holiday was originally named. While the 45th president may like to compare himself favorably to the first, he has in fact done his best to destroy the office that George Washington created.
Washington’s Birthday, as President’s Day is still officially called, was largely the brainchild of a carpetbagging senator named Stephen Wallace Dorsey. In 1879, amid desires to overcome the extreme polarization of the Reconstruction era, Dorsey proposed a day to honor the one universally revered figure in American history. In the 20th century the holiday was shifted on the calendar to create a three-day weekend, and since it no longer corresponded with the actual day of George Washington’s birth, the day became more broadly a celebration of all U.S. presidents.
The change may have added confusion, but it made some sense, since Washington set a course that subsequent presidents followed. George Washington’s greatest accomplishment in his two terms in the nation’s highest office was not, arguably, establishing the monetary system or defining how the United States would conduct foreign policy, but rather setting the tone of the presidency and the behavioral expectations of the commander-in-chief.
Washington’s greatest accomplishment in his two terms in the nation’s highest office was setting the tone of the presidency.
Indeed, a little-known but poignant fact about the American presidency is that Washington self-consciously fashioned it — as a uniquely secular, non-aristocratic office undergirded by the principles of liberalism — based on his own life experience.
Knowingly or not, all presidents who came after attempted to emulate a model that hearkens back to a particular version of Virginia boyhood. All presidents, that is, until now.
The most fateful event of Washington’s life may have been losing his father when he was 11 years old. As a result of this traumatic event, he was not sent to England to receive the formal education he had expected. Instead, a much rougher and humbler future presented itself: helping his backwoods mother run the family farm. But Washington wasn’t content with this future, and so starting in his teens he set about giving himself the trappings of a gentleman: studying etiquette manuals, taking lessons with a fencing instructor, even designing his own clothing.
Washington’s lack of education led to an intense focus on the outward manifestations of “civilized behavior” as understood by his Virginia tobacco planter culture. The objective wasn’t to fashion an empty shell, but rather to prove to himself and others that, father or no father, he was worthy. Virtue, for a gentleman of the day, was an element of character: you either had it or you didn’t. Presenting yourself with refinement, with dignity and restraint, was a way of reflecting what you felt inside. Public acknowledgment sealed the deal.
Virtue, for a gentleman of the day, was an element of character: you either had it or you didn’t.
Appearances continued to matter deeply to Washington throughout his life. Delegates to the Continental Congress, on meeting him for the first time in 1774, were struck by his air of aloofness; one described him “like a Bishop at his prayers.” After he was named commander of the Continental Army, Washington personally designed his own uniform and those of his officers. In battle he always ensured that he was seen riding the tallest and noblest horse. He demanded that his officers exhibit restraint and maintain decorum at all times.
When he assumed the new nation’s highest office, Washington’s personal guidelines mattered that much more. The American presidency was something wholly new. Washington believed it needed to be distinguished from European courts, which he saw as riddled with corruption and choked with hidebound displays of power and obsequiousness. He wanted to set a different tone: crisp, sober, businesslike. Once again he needed to create a facade that would project the qualities of honor and virtue.
During his eight years as president he worked to erect the edifice of the office. More important than structural elements — a Cabinet of advisors, a State of the Union address, limiting himself to two terms — was the tone he established. It was essential, he wrote to Vice President John Adams at the outset of his term, that “the President in all matters of business & etiquette” must comport himself “in such a manner as to maintain the dignity of Office.”
The presidency that Washington personified — the cool demeanor, the quiet pomp, the state dinners (formal yet modest by European standards), the image of himself as of the people yet on another plane from them — lasted for 228 years. His model was adopted by all subsequent presidents. Until last year.
The very things that Washington consciously stamped upon the office are what Trump has defiled.
Donald Trump seems to have set about purposely to demolish that model. The very things that Washington consciously stamped upon the office are what Trump has defiled. Shocked reactions to Trump’s presidency are as much a response to the way he has conducted himself as to what he has done. From “Lock her up” to “Little Rocket Man,” from “Pocahontas” to “shithole countries,” Trump’s statements ridicule and undermine Washington’s determination that the president “maintain the dignity of Office.”
What’s more, Trump’s ludicrous comparisons of himself and Washington — he publicly boasted that Senator Orrin Hatch told him he was “the greatest President in the history of our country” including “Lincoln and Washington” — breathtakingly contradict Washington’s own ideas of presidential restraint.
In contrast to the time of our powdered-wigged founders, we now live in an era of informality. Yet Trump’s presidency suggests that form may matter today even more than in Washington’s day. The decorum that Washington imposed on the presidency, which grew out of his own very American self-invention, provides some desperately needed assurance in an increasingly chaotic world.
As Trump drags the country into a gutter of small-minded tweets, world leaders large and small feel increasingly emboldened to go their own ways. The U.S. needs to act in a way that demands respect, from allies and enemies alike. Yet the lack of decorum we have experienced over the past year sends a terrifying signal of disorder. It denotes a vacuum — a moral vacuum and a power vacuum — that other forces will try to fill.
Washington’s Birthday matters now in a negative comparative sense: it reminds us of how thoroughly the American presidency has been debased. Yet it also reminds us of the Virginia boy who believed that outward behavior could point to inner virtue. Once Donald Trump has been swept from the stage it will be up to us to decide how to clean up the mess, and how to refashion the office that George Washington invented.
Russell Shorto is the author of “Revolution Song: A Story of American Freedom.” He tweets at @RussellShorto.