Today may be our most confusing national holiday because it is unclear what we are to celebrate. Much of it depends upon where we live and for whom we work. There is no Presidents’ Day for the federal government. Instead, there is Washington’s Birthday. To remember George Washington and his many accomplishments, federal employees take the day off work. In Colorado, however, we celebrate Presidents’ Day, which instead is a celebration of the executive office and all those who have occupied it.
Washington’s birthday was on February 22nd, but many also wanted to celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on February 12th, and so it was decided that a single day should be dedicated to celebrating both historic presidents. In 1971, the holiday was moved to the third Monday in February. Prior to the 1980s, most corporate businesses remained closed, but advertisers began pushing state legislatures to designate the holiday as Presidents’ Day, and it has been used for retail sales since. It is conceivable that the day could also be used to honor recipients of the Purple Heart medal, which bears Washington’s image. The practice of awarding such a medal was revived in 1932. In many respects, it would make more sense if this was what the holiday celebrated since the recipients of these medals are still with us and will always deserve our deepest respect and gratitude.
To be sure, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln hold cherished places in the country’s collective consciousness. One gets a good sense of why this is so in reading Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life or Lord Charnwood’s Abraham Lincoln. A celebration of the office of the presidency though is something else altogether, and it speaks volumes about how much our attitudes towards the Constitution and the notion of our country have changed. As Gene Healy has written, “Neither Left nor Right sees the president as the Framers saw him: a constitutionally constrained chief executive with an important, but limited job: to defend the country when attacked, check Congress when it violates the Constitution, enforce the law – and little else.” Healy continues by describing the change that has taken place: “Today, for conservatives as well as liberals, it is the president’s job to protect us from harm, to “grow the economy,” to spread democracy and American ideals abroad, and even to heal the spiritual malaise – whether it takes the form of a “sleeping sickness of the soul,” as Hillary Clinton would have it, or an “if it feels good, do it” ethic as diagnosed by George W. Bush.”
Generations of Americans not bothering to read Article II of the Constitution prior to the onslaught of demagoguery inherent in every presidential campaign has led to each successive administration taking on more suppositional powers, being granted greater and greater leeway in expanding and applying so-called implied or inherent powers, and has in turn given way to a population that is more emotional than thoughtful about their executive magistrate. The cult of the presidency has produced a people slavish in their attitudes towards those who inhabit that office, and a holiday given over to celebrating it exacerbates this tendency. A free and thoughtful people would admonish themselves for this sort of behavior because they would recognize in the many historic parallels conduct that jeopardizes their liberty.
In reviewing the letters of Cato, Federal Farmer, Brutus, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and even Washington himself, we see plenty of reasons for circumspection. As Madison put it, we cannot trust that great statesmen will always be at the helm, and so the Founders provided for institutional checks to ensure that one man’s ambitions would not run afoul of the common good – the res publica. It was, however, the singularity of the executive office that caused the greatest concern. Cato, for instance, considered all of the enumerated powers the president could exercise, even over the fairly short term of office he would be allowed, and concluded that, “if the president is possessed of ambition, he has power and time sufficient to ruin his country.” Federal Farmer, much like Madison, believed that this position was not unique to a president, but was evident in human nature. “The principal objection,” he wrote, “to a single man is, that when possessed of power he will be constantly struggling for more, disturbing the government, and encroaching on the rights of others. It must be admitted, that men, from the monarch down to the porter, are constantly aiming at power and importance; and this propensity must be as constantly guarded against in the forms of the government. Adequate powers must be delegated to those who govern, and our security must be in limiting, defining, and guarding the exercise of them, so that those given shall not be abused, or made use of for openly or secretly seizing more.”
Most of us are familiar with Lord Acton’s famous quotation that “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Fewer are familiar with the next sentence from that letter, which is, “Great men are almost always bad men.” Ambition, money, power, and the pride that comes from having millions revere them by seeing a celebrity where they should instead see a servant creates a monstrous danger for limited government and thus for individual liberty. Federal Farmer again makes an à propos point: “If we reason at all on the subject, we must irresistibly conclude, that this will be the case with nine-tenths of the presidents; we may have for the first president, and, perhaps, one in a century or two afterwards…a great and good man, governed by superior motives; but these are not events to be calculated upon in the present state of human nature.”
Human nature has changed very little over time, but executive power has grown outward like concentric rings expanding across the decades and centuries. For example, when a federal judge, David Andrew Pine, was examining Attorney General Holmes Baldridge during the lead up to the Supreme Court’s decision in Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer in 1952, the following conversation took place:
Judge Pine: So you contend the Executive has unlimited power in time of an emergency?
Baldridge: He has the power to take such action as is necessary to meet the emergency.
Judge Pine: If the emergency is great, it is unlimited, is it?
Baldridge: I suppose if you carry it to its logical conclusion, that is true.
Judge Pine: And that the Executive determined the emergencies and the courts cannot even review whether it is an emergency.
Baldridge: That is correct.
Judge Pine: So, when the sovereign people adopted the Constitution, it enumerated the powers set up in the Constitution, but limited the powers of the Congress and limited the powers of the Judiciary, but it did not limit the powers of the Executive. Is that what you say?
Baldridge: That is the way we read Article II of the Constitution.
There are those who would accuse this of being an angry, dispirited, cynical, or jaded attack on Presidents’ Day, but it is actually quite hopeful in its way. It professes a belief that the American people, regardless of which political faction they have aligned themselves with, still possess enough regard for the political health of their country to reflect upon the nature of the presidency today and that they will not fall prey to the traps so many of their predecessors have over the course of millennia. Etienne de la Boétie, writing in a tract entitled The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude published around 1553 wrote that the “earliest kings of Egypt rarely showed themselves without carrying a cat, or sometimes a branch, or appearing with fire on their heads, masking themselves with these objects and parading like workers of magic. By doing this they inspired their subjects with reverence and admiration, whereas with people neither too stupid nor too slavish they would merely have aroused, it seems to me, amusement and laughter.” We should know better and the tools for knowing are more readily available to us than to any previous generation. Nowhere is this truer than for students who are given a classical education in which they are encouraged to examine themselves and the institutions and the beliefs to which they have given power over their lives.
A people with some knowledge of the last three-thousand years would do well not to worship any living office holder. Instead, free citizens should educate themselves, because it is with them that the real and lasting good of the country depends, and not with anyone who has been or will be elected. A classical education shows quite clearly that bad people cannot be made good by having “enlightened statesmen” pass any number of “good” laws. Today, instead of shopping, a more fitting tribute to the day, and certainly to both Washington and Lincoln, would be to read all 1,021 words of Article II, or Cato No. 4, or Federal Farmer No. 14, or Federalist No. 67, or William Penn’s tract on the good man and the good citizen in Frame of Government of Pennsylvania published in 1682. It is the responsibility of an institution such as Ridgeview, in promoting education and virtue, to encourage Americans to return to a conversation about their own efforts at a virtuous life, to restrict the powers of their elected officeholders to those enumerated powers consented to, and to look after themselves. Today, in short, should not be a day on which confusion reigns, but a day for reflection and self-examination about the precise nature of our reverence for elected officials and our attitudes towards those to whom we have granted immense power. Change is possible. As Washington noted in 1777, “We should never despair, our Situation…has been unpromising and has changed for the better, so I trust, it will again.”