Mr. President, leader of the free world, Commander in Chief: these are just some of the many titles given to the President of the United States. From 32 days in office to over 12 years, the Presidents have cemented their legacies in history and are honored every year on Presidents Day. For most at St. Louis U. High, Feb. 20 is just another day off, but some in the building challenge us to look further.
Presidents Day originally fell on George Washington’s birthday every year until President Richard Nixon signed an executive order in 1971 moving Presidents Day to the third Monday in February under the Uniform Monday Holiday Act.
“It was basically just moved to give workers more days off,” said senior Alex Deiters.
History teacher Tom McCarthy’s love for all things presidential came from his early childhood when there was a turning point in American history.
“It would have to start with my family as a kid,” McCarthy said. “Above my dad’s workbench used to be a photo—it was a page out of Freedom Magazine which had been in the Sunday Post—of President Kennedy. They published it the week after he was assassinated. I was only a toddler when Kennedy was killed. I have no memory of it, but that was always hanging up over his workbench.”
Deiters, a leader in the SLUH Historical Society, believes Presidents Day can be used to humanize the person in the oval office. While presidents are often revered as larger-than-life figures, they are all still just people who live and make mistakes. The difference is that their mistakes are reflected on all of the American people.
“For me, Presidents Day is a reminder to reflect,” said Deiters. “It’s not so much about celebrating past presidents but simply looking at them as humans whose legacy is also the nation’s legacy.”
History teacher Tim O’Neil admits that he usually uses Presidents Day to catch up on grading research papers. While the day holds historical significance, it is also an important way to give working Americans a break from their everyday life.
“I think it provides a little bit of a break to balance your work life,” said O’Neil. “Holidays are kind of useful just to help reset a little bit and just slow down, calm down. I think it’s good that there’s at least one day out of every month that sort of has that built into it.”
Still, O’Neil believes the holiday is dedicated to presidents for a reason. American culture places importance around recognizing and celebrating history, so we dedicate our holidays to specific aspects of that history.
“In England, it is called a bank holiday,” said O’Neil. “A bank holiday is just a day off you get occasionally. So it’s an interesting question, why is there a presidential holiday and not a holiday for Congress? Or a holiday for the Supreme Court? Why the president?”
The nation at large and the SLUH community tend to place presidents on a pedestal. Yet an honest examination of the nation’s past leaders requires seeing the positives and the negatives.
“I think we still celebrate it because presidents still achieve great things,” said senior Henry Azar, a Historical Society leader. “I think it’s important to remember that, though each of them have their flaws and they can divide the country, I think it’s just important to recognize their work, and I think it is something we should celebrate.”
A large part of the American experience is being able to have one’s voice heard through voting. Celebrating the president means celebrating the strength of American democracy that has triumphed for centuries.
“Unique to the United States is its long democratic history,” said Deiters. “There aren’t a whole lot of countries who can boast that same sort of consistency with electing democratic officials. The people in power, those men, they were elected by the people. So, in a unique way, our leaders definitely reflect the mood of the nation.”
Presidents Day is a time to reflect on the legacies of the Presidents, yet McCarthy warns against holding history to an unrealistic modern standard.
“You can always fall victim to the fallacy of presentism, of trying to judge the past by today’s standards,” said McCarthy. “People say that Washington owned slaves. Is owning slaves something we even do in 2023? No. It's like comparing apples and chainsaws.”
Many of the presidents idolized by Americans today had mixed records on human rights. Still, the world has changed drastically in the past few centuries, so it is necessary to look at historical context when judging these figures.
“When we reevaluate Thomas Jefferson for his role in the practice of slavery, we are also calling into question the motto he coined for us, ‘all men are created equal,’” said Deiters. “We need to be able to reconcile this man who spread democratic ideals on paper while probably sleeping with a person he legally owned. It’s kind of an impossible task.”
Instead of holding past presidents to modern standards, McCarthy recommends comparing them to other historical figures and asking whether they drove change or were simply products of their environment.
“Are they made by the environment or do they shape it?” asked McCarthy. “I think a better way to put it is are they event makers or eventful? Do they tend to come along at the right time in the right place? Whereas event makers, they make the event. Martin Luther King, Jr. makes the Civil Rights Movement what it was; without him, it would have been different. So I think that could be a standard you could use to look at presidents.”
Presidents Day is not only a good opportunity to think about and discuss history, it is also an important time to examine the present. Presidents and history can teach important lessons about the current political climate.
“If you would read Washington’s Farewell Address, you would wonder if he just wrote it two years ago because it sounds really fresh and up to date about our current political landscape,” said McCarthy.
As America enters into an election year, Presidents Day can also be used to look toward the future. The holiday can become a sort of bridge between the nation’s history and the possibilities of future presidents.
“For me, it’s just more of a reminder to learn more about the current president,” said Deiters. “I read an article, I don't know what it said exactly, but it was basically like ‘Let’s take this Presidents Day to look at possible candidates for 2024.’ So we’re really bridging that gap between the colonial past and the modern president.”
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