Happy Presidents Day?

The commentary in many U.S. history books and in the mass media makes frequent reference to the listener as part of a group: the listener is identified as someone who shares “our American values” and is a part of “our America society.” Frequently the view of historical figures in U.S. government highlights their importance in “building our society” or similar such concepts. All of this assumes a cohesive society with common beliefs, values and interests. However few societies have this sort of cohesiveness and commonality of interest. And our current society is deeply splintered and fractured across many dimensions including gender, race, religion, economics, and social values. Generalizations about “American society” ranges from meaningless platitudes to an intentional attempt at propaganda. So with this in mind I am asking myself what (if anything) should be celebrated on Presidents Day.

I recall from my elementary school days that there were two school holidays in February: Lincoln’s Birthday and Washington’s Birthday. By the time my kids were in elementary school the two specific presidential holidays were reduced to the single day Presidents Day. But it is Washington and Lincoln day to me. So let’s think about this and see what there may be to celebrate, with a specific focus on Washington.

We all know the basic facts about George Washington: he born into a wealthy family and was well-educated. He inherited the family plantation in Virginia and was a slave owner (but he did free his slaves on his death by will). He was a member of the group that promoted the U.S. revolution, was a leader in the Revolutionary War, and was the first U.S. president. For Washington and other southern states land owners, the U.S. revolution and the resulting independence from England would reduce his taxes and increase his profit and trade opportunities. The main result of the U.S revolution was lower taxes for the wealthy while plantation workers and others remain enslaved. This doesn’t seem like anything to celebrate.

So what if Washington and his peers had failed in their effort to escape English taxation and the English colonies in North America remained in the political control of the United Kingdom? Would things be better or worse now in the colonies? Of course any such exploration of an alternative time-line is sheer speculation, but it is interesting to consider the possibility. It’s probable that the U.S. would have a political structure similar to British Commonwealth countries with a parliamentary central government and without the semi-autonomous individual state governments. This system would be much more democratic than the governmental mess that is now in the place in the U.S. If the U.S. remained under British control then the slaves in the U.S. most likely would have been freed by the British Slave Abolition Act of 1833 (30 years before the Emancipation Proclamation). That would have been a significant reduction in human suffering.

We cannot reset the clock in history and so we are stuck with the world as it is in 2019. There are some U.S. presidents that have helped to improve the human condition within the parameters of the U.S. government as they found it. My short list would include Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Barack Obama (who undoubtedly is the best president in my lifetime [so far]). Of course the hands-down winner of the U.S. president who caused the most harm to humanity is Donald Trump.

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