Presidents Day Should Be History

Mythologizing past leaders doesn't seem to fit a democracy, John Harris writes
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 21, 2022 4:32 PM CST
Presidents Day Should Be History
An honor cordon is in place at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on Feb. 12.   (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

(Newser) – The reconsidering of US history, especially its leaders, has made Presidents Day a little awkward. Woodrow Wilson, for example, was ranked highly by historians until his racial views received more attention recently; he's now largely disappeared from such conversations. Wilson isn't the only one who benefited from the mythologizing of past leaders. A step toward mitigating the harm would be doing away with Presidents Day, John Harris writes in Politico. Mythologizing presidents seems in conflict with a democracy, he writes.

In a politically split nation, there's something for everybody to dislike about Presidents Day. "From the left it seems obvious that we don’t need a holiday honoring 46 presidents, all of them men," Harris writes. "From the right it seems obvious that we don't need to be honoring the aggrandizement of Washington-based politicians." Studying past presidents should benefit the nation, providing lessons and context for current issues. It doesn't always work that way. Perhaps Presidents Day could remain with a different name, Harris says, devoted to understanding and wrestling with those lessons.

The history taught to children is a preachy civic religion, Harris says, that leaves them with patriotic lessons and heroes worthy of being turned into marble statues. The other kind of history tries to understand the past as it occurred, using evidence and arguments that often aren't conclusive and defy easy answers. "So while one style of history studies the past in search of moral clarity, the other is attuned to moral ambiguity," he says. They're not of equal value. "A brand of history that embraces reality over myth, and ambiguity over sharp moral judgments over heroes and villains, ultimately offers far more useful lessons for a democracy," Harris writes. You can read the full piece here. (Read more Presidents Day stories.)

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