Washington’s Birthday update

Washington’s eloquece, his ethics, and the politcs of holiday creation.

In response to my comment that Washington’s writings weren’t worth reading, a reader supplies a wonderful Washington quote, from his letter to Touro Synagogue:

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of once class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent national gifts.

[That, of course was then; this is now. The idea that Muslims in this country worship freely only by the indulgence of the rest of us seems to be relatively popular.]

Another reader points me to Ellis’s Founding Brothers, where Washington is praised for his grasp of the realities of political power, the sanity of his foreign policy, and for manumitting his slaves at death (unlike the other anti-slavery slaveholders among the Founders). I certainly prefer his approach to theirs, but if Washington was acting on principle presumably he should have done the same thing during his lifetime, rather than merely being generous at the expense of his heirs.

[It’s also a tiny bit unfair to criticize Jefferson et al. for not freeing their slaves at death. The westward flow of population that helped inspire the revolution and was in turned helped along by the new government’s friendliness to western settlement caused a collapse in seaboard land values, leaving most of the Tidewater crowd with landholdings worth less than their mortgages. So freeing their slaves at death, had it been legally possible, would have involved cheating their creditors.]

Still, I didn’t mean to imply that Washington wasn’t well worth honoring; I meant only to say that Washington’s Birthday never meant as much to me as Lincoln’s.

A reader also points out that the “President’s Day” abomination was part of the deal to create the Martin Luther King Holiday. (If I recall correctly, there were two aspects to this: the employers didn’t want another legal holiday, and the white Southerners figured that if they had to honor Martin Luther King they ought to get off having to honor Lincoln.) He nominates Columbus Day as a holiday that might well be sacrificed to bring back Linconln’s Birthday.

Well, yes and no. Yes, what the Spaniards did in the New World is nothing to celebrate. Still, the European discovery of the Americas marks an epoch in the history of the world, and no amount of Leif Ericson can change the fact that it was Columbus’s voyage that did the job. (The statue of Isabella the Butcher that disgraces the OAS building in Washington, on the other hand, really goes too far.)

In any case, there are too many Italian-American voters back east to make dumping Columbus Day a live option. I’d go for restoring Washington’s Birthday and restoring Lincoln’s Birthday, adding one to the number of legal holidays. That would nicely position the barbarians currently posing as the Party of Lincoln between their party’s iconic figure on the one hand and, on the other, their corporate sponsors and the neo-Confederates with whom they love to play footsie.

Correction: Thanks to an alert reader, “neo-Confederates” substituted for “neo-Conservatives” above (It’s hard to keep the different sets of new con artists straight.)

Update A reader properly rebukes me for implicitly including all white Southerners in the rude remark about the MLK holiday:

NOT “White Southerners”: racists, civil rights opponents, segregationists if you like. The pro-civil-rights white Southerners were consequential, braver than you and braver than I, and deserve not to be lost in a regional slur. The anti-civil-rights northerners were considerable, especially to be condemned because they had no environmental excuse, and deserve not to be, um, whitewashed.

Fair enough. But let’s not forget that Southern white liberals on racial issues were and are a minority; another reader reminds me that in Virginia, January 19 isn’t the Martin Luther King Holiday but instead Lee-Jackson Day.

(Correction: Stephen Bainbridge says it’s actually Lee-JacksonKing Day. He’s as puzzled by that as I am. What’s next: Budweiser-Carrie Nation Day? Martin Luther-Torquemada Day? But I’d rather have the incomprehensible mish-mash than a frankly Confederate celebration.)

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com