More enduring thoughts on Presidents’ Day

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Emanuel Leutze, Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851, on view at the American Wing at The Met Fifth Avenue. Photo: JH.

And another Presidents’ Day entry from just last year …

February 20, 2023. Gloria Vanderbilt was born 99 years ago today.  She departed gracefully four years ago this coming June. Not cold, yesterday in New York. With temps hovering again around the high 40s and 50.

It is still a holiday, Presidents’ Day across the land, and specifically referring to the real birthdays of George Washington (on this date) and Abraham Lincoln (February 12th). The city has felt quieter since Friday, as if many are away. But in a place where the population is in the millions, how quiet could it be.

Presidents’ Day when I was growing up mid-20th century in America was an acknowledged holiday. We were made aware of its importance as school children in the classroom. Truly, there was an air of reverence for these two men and specifically because of their Presidencies.

It was a patriotic holiday and perhaps because of mid-century post-World War II, whatever the details, they were regarded — as taught to us kids — as distinguished and good men. I mention it because in these 21st century’s Presidencies days, they are regarded a little more realistically, if at all.

Nevertheless, these days are important to remind us all that we are one country and in it physically together in the new century.

From 1800 to 1971, this day, at this time of the year was known to one and all as George Washington’s Birthday. Which it was. George was born on February 22nd in 1732. (He died on December 14, 1799 — at age 67.)  Abraham Lincoln’s birthday was/is February 12th and for a long time when I was a kid it was also a national holiday. In 1971, it was decided to make it “Presidents’ Day” on the third Monday in February, which every few years matches Washington’s birthday but in the meantime celebrates all Presidents’ birthdays as a national holiday.

Kimmel & Forster, Columbia’s Noblest Sons, c. 1865. Library of Congress

When I was a kid in school, our nation’s history was taught beginning in second or third grade. By fourth grade we were getting a lot more stories about our nation’s founding. It turns out that a lot of what we were taught was not exactly the way it was, and overlooked the reality of the Europeans (immigrants, of course) who came here and “pushed aside” the tens of millions of Native Americans who came to be known as “Indians.” Nevertheless, as children we were being inculcated with a sense of “patriotism.”

I’m not sure that Mr. Washington never told a lie — because he was, after all, only human — but as children it was an excellent reminder of the rewarding distinction of being truthful. It is ironic of course that ever since George Washington we have had MANY presidents who told lots of lies and over and over. I’m not thinking of anyone in particular.

However, old George was a man of distinction according to what we know (and were taught) about him. My friend John Loeb, who is a long time fan of our first President, recently sent me a sweet little book called George Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and in Conversation.

The rules recorded in this slender volume were written down in 1746 when Washington was still a boy of fourteen — although in those days, fourteen was right on the edge of maturity as people often didn’t live as long as we do today.

Washington, the introduction tells us, “exhibited notable manners throughout his life. Diligence in social matters was common practice in decent society the world over, during his lifetime.”

At that young age George wrote down 110 rules of Civility and Decent Behavior. He didn’t make them up but drew them from an English translation of a French book of maxims that were “intended to polish manners, keep alive the best affections of the heart, impress the obligation of moral virtues, teach how to treat others in social relations, and above all inculcate the practice of  a perfect self-control.”

I was impressed because it’s blatantly evident today that those born in the past three decades have not been inculcated, educated, or trained (by parents and elders) to pay attention with what we call manners, or etiquette. And then there are those in my generation who were presumably brought up in a house where manners were taught, yet possess none.

The underlying word for all of them is RESPECT for others. These are realistically cultural navigational tools, making it easier and more efficient for us to move around and/or navigate in life. They are as efficient and practical as any map that shows you the best way to reach your destination.

Today, “manners” as simple as “please” and “thank you” are very often missing from our most general relationships to each other. This is a very grave loss and augers very poorly for our future as individuals and as a people. Many parents in these times don’t even bother to teach their children. It is a form of benign neglect.

The fourteen-year-old George Washington, obviously ambitious even as a teenager, knew this.  Number one on his list is: “Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present.” George’s “rules” cover all “social” behavior — that is life in the presence of others, be it conversation, business, dining or simply in the company of others — strangers or friends. His 110th (and final) of these “rules” sums it up:

“Labour to keep alive in your breast that little celestial fire called conscience.”

And by all means, demonstrate Respect for others as well as for yourself.

Happy Presidents’ Day.

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