Government's misguided holiday to celebrate itself

As kids we are taught to revere the great heroes of American history, including many presidents. These men of vision, action and character, such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan, tower above their contemporaries and dominate our young imaginations. Many of us carry this childhood veneration with us into adulthood.

A good example of this unhealthy veneration is the holiday we observe today: Presidents Day.


Originally established in 1885 to honor President Washington (one of the few good ones), since the 1970s Presidents Day has become a celebration of all U.S. presidents, living and dead.

But this uncritical idolatry prioritizes personalities over principles. Upon closer consideration, we find that the Office of the President, and the men who have occupied it, often are the last thing Americans should celebrate.

In addition to necessarily being some of the most politically opportunistic and ruthless people around, presidents also tend to be among the most privileged, benefiting from educations at prestigious schools, distinguished family backgrounds and vast wealth. Of the 44 previous presidents, 35 were millionaires.President TrumpDonald John TrumpNew Jersey incumbents steamroll progressive challengers in primaries Tucker Carlson ratchets up criticism of Duckworth, calls her a 'coward' Trump on Confederate flag: 'It's freedom of speech' MORE is worth more than all the previous presidents combined.

Additionally, presidents, like all elected officials, are not virtuous angels who disregard their self-interest upon entering office. In their quest for personal power, past presidents have expanded the power of the office far beyond the worst fears of Founding Fathers.

In many respects, we no longer have a president; we have an emperor.

Take, for example, the executive order. Although not strictly unconstitutional, these orders are not how the Framers intended the country to be governed. And yet these orders increasingly are used by modern presidents to maneuver around the requirements of the system of checks and balances set up by the Framers of the Constitution.

During his two terms in office, Washington issued just eight executive orders. In the midst of the Civil War that threatened to tear the republic asunder, Lincoln issued 48 such orders. The last three presidents (Obama, Bush and Clinton) issued a combined 932 executive orders. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, probably the most damaging president in American history, issued more than 3,500 executive orders during his 12-year tenure.

But even worse than this direct presidential action was the creation and maintenance of a vast, ever-growing executive bureaucracy, through which the majority of governance now takes place. Executive agencies are empowered to enact rules controlling the health, safety and welfare of individuals across the country. Such an exercise of unchecked power would make James Madison’s head spin.

And recent presidents have systematically undermined the crucial role Congress should play in approving armed foreign conflicts. The Framers were specific about how this republic is supposed to work: Congress declares wars, and presidents serve as commander-in-chief. But modern presidents have conducted their own wars, with or without the consent or even input of Congress, for over a century.

This is not a question of whether a particular action was warranted. This is about whether a particular president had the constitutional authority to take that action.

Celebrating an office such as the presidency is misguided because it conflates the individual officeholder with what is truly worth celebrating: our unique constitutional republic.

That is to say, what matters is the Constitution, not the individual who occupies the Oval Office.

America’s uniqueness doesn’t stem from the personality or bravado of our leaders, but from our commitment to the principle of limited government, the rule of law, and the absolute triumph of individual rights and liberties to the detriment of concentrated power and politicians.

And there is no worse concentration of power than the modern presidency.

What makes the country “great” is not who occupies the office, but the legacy of a system of government that has enabled us to become freer, achieve more and have a greater positive impact on our fellow citizens than any other in human history.

So, by all means, enjoy your day off from work. But please think twice before you light a candle at the shrine of the likes of Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaTrump may be DACA participants' best hope, but will Democrats play ball? Biden hires top aides for Pennsylvania Spencer Cox defeats Jon Huntsman in Utah GOP governor primary MORE or Donald Trump.

Timothy Snowball is an attorney at Pacific Legal Foundation, which litigates to enforce the Constitution’s guarantee of individual liberty.