Why Celebrate Presidents?
Don’t get me wrong. We’ve had some fine Presidents. And we’ve had some dreadful ones. But I’m uncomfortable with the degree of celebration we’ve had over any of them.
Early in our nation’s history, our leaders were anti-royalists. Celebration and reverence were expected to be reserved for the Constitution, or perhaps the Declaration of Independence. It was the Age of Enlightenment, which was the source of the words:
We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
A belief that “all Men are created equal” is not particularly compatible with reverence of royals. And yet, here it is, “Presidents’ Day”, a day we have generally come to accept is devoted to celebrating our Presidents, in almost a sense of royalty.
But something happened to us over the past two centuries. We began to treat our Presidents differently.
In 1879, Congress instituted our first permanent celebration of a President, with the establishment of George Washington’s Birthday as a national holiday.
The next, perhaps more significant, change occurred in 1909, the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. For the first time in American history, our money depicted the visage of a real person, when, at the request of President Theodore Roosevelt, the obverse of the one cent coin was changed from that of a nonspecific Native American man to the bust of Lincoln. It was a move that harkened to other nations, whose heads of state have been placed on coins since Alexander the Great first graced Greek electrum coins nearly 2,400 years ago.
It remained the only coin in the United States with a real person on it until 1931, when the anthropomorphic representation of Liberty was replaced by the bust of George Washington. Then the nickel followed fairly quickly thereafter, with Thomas Jefferson replacing the Native American on the five-cent piece in 1938. Franklin Roosevelt then substituted for Liberty (with wings) on the ten-cent piece in 1946, and non-President Benjamin Franklin (the first real non–President to grace our coins) took over for Liberty on the half-dollar in 1948. The fifty-cent piece got its first President when John Kennedy took the spot in 1964. The last coin to receive a President’s face was the dollar, which was stamped with Dwight Eisenhower instead of Liberty beginning in 1971.
Now all of our coins and currency have Presidents on them, other than the particularly uncommon Sacagawea dollar. We even have a series of dollar coins that, by 2016, will have depicted every former President that has since deceased.
It seems to me that Theodore Roosevelt did our nation a great disservice by replacing the Age of Enlightenment notion of reverence for our nation with reverence for our nation’s leaders. But he couldn’t have done it alone. We all (or our ancestors, at least) let it happen.
What happened? Why do we celebrate Presidents’ Day (or Washington’s Birthday) in February, instead of a mid-September day honoring the adoption of our Constitution? Why have we been evolving ever toward treating Presidents as a temporary monarch, paying homage to these elected people instead of the documents of reason from the Age of Enlightenment? Have we as a nation become less enlightened over the past century?
- Presidential Faces On Our Money (grandmacents.com)
- Abraham Lincoln, America’s first superhero? (herocomplex.latimes.com)