Executive Power

Why No Congress Day, Judiciary Day, or Separation of Powers Day?

My 2015 critique of Presidents Day is, if anything, even more relevant four years later.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

The presidential seal.

Back in 2015, I wrote a critique of Presidents Day. It is, if anything, even more timely, and relevant today. We should not honor all presidents indiscriminately, since there are many who don't deserve it. And we should not make the "cult of the presidency" even worse than it already is. Better to honor the separation of powers more generally:

Presidents Day may be a good time to ask why we have a national holiday to celebrate the executive branch of government, but don't have a Congress Day or Judiciary Day. Presidents already get a disproportionate share of the credit and blame for anything that happens in government. The president also has a major advantage over Congress and the Supreme Court because he is almost the only government official whose name even generally ignorant voters know.

While Presidents Day has its origins in celebrations of Washington's birthday, over time it has come be understood as honoring all the presidents – even those who clearly don't deserve any honors from posterity. Perhaps the time has come to redress the balance by giving the other two branches of government holidays of their own. Better still, we could have a Separation of Powers Day, or even (following Federalist 51), an Ambition Counteracting Ambition Day.

I should add that I am happy to endorse the idea of returning Presidents Day to its original purpose of honoring George Washington (who, unlike many of his successors, really does deserve it). The same goes for the slightly expanded approach of honoring both Washington and Abraham Lincoln.


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  1. I believe the official holiday is still George Washington’s Birthday. It is only Presidents Day informally.

    1. Yes. You think a law professor would know this.

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    2. Combined with Lincoln’s birthday.

      1. In some states.

      2. If on,y we could gene splice a Lincoln/Washington close together. It would be even better than the Lincoln/Hitler clone, Abradolf Lincler

    3. Depends which “Official” you’re using.

      Federal, yes. But by state, many of the states call it President’s Day (or Presidents’ Day). These are also official.

      More to the point, Lincoln’s Birthday (which was never a federal holiday, but a state holiday in many states) has gradually been lost

    4. *This holiday is designated as “Washington’s Birthday” in section 6103(a) of title 5 of the United States Code, which is the law that specifies holidays for Federal employees. Though other institutions such as state and local governments and private businesses may use other names, it is our policy to always refer to holidays by the names designated in the law.


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  2. I fail to see how the complaint is any more relevant today than four years ago. Surely every President has been subject to the irrational hatred of some fraction of the population, and none of them have been worthy of such worshipful adulation.

    If anything, making it About Trump just weakened your case by making it personal instead of principled.

    1. I should say, every President is hated by a significant fraction of the population. Whether or not that hatred is seen as rational or irrational is mostly a matter of political opinion.

      1. But we could add a holiday day of “President who has accomplished more than any other president,” and leave the actual person’s identity to each individual’s guess.

  3. Despite the sweeping generalization made by the history.com article (and repeated here), I see little evidence for the claim that “over time [Presidents Day] has come be understood as honoring all the presidents”. To me, it’s still Washington’s and Lincoln’s Birthday.

      1. Me three. Also, that’s reflected in every TV commercial you see about the holiday.

    1. Depends on where you live. Around here it’s most definitely about all Presidents, with Washington and Lincoln taking special honor.

      1. All dead Presidents, anyway. I’ve never seen the slightest hint that it celebrates living ones. That would be tacky at best.

      2. gormadoc,
        Your comment was not helpful, because you forgot to mention where you are. 🙂

        For me, “here” is California, and we had 2 separate holidays–for Washington and Lincoln–when I was in grade school. At some point, it became one combined holiday for the two of them. And when I became a teacher (mid-80s), it was still a holiday honoring only those two presidents. To my knowledge (a reasonably bright guy who has *not* followed this issue in the slightest in 30 years), it’s still a holiday for these two in my state.

        1. I recall when Washington’s and Lincoln’s days were joined to allow a day for a Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Where I lived in South Carolina, neither the second nor the third was followed.

        2. Nebraska. I was taught that the holiday had its origins in Washington and Lincoln but was expanded to include all Presidents who served.

    2. In different geographic areas where I have lived over the years the holiday gravitates to recognize Presidents from that state or surrounding states. But most NE Coast states will stick with Washington and Lincoln. Reagan was popular in the 80’s and 90’s, not so much though that CA has taken such a stark leftward turn over the last decade.

    3. “I see little evidence for the claim that ‘over time [Presidents Day] has come be understood as honoring all the presidents'”

      As best as I can tell, Presidents day has come to be about appliance, furniture, and car salesmen.

    4. I completely agree. I have never been aware of anyone declaring that it honored all presidents, it was originally Washington’s Birthday, and Lincoln was added as a concession to those who see Lincoln as one of the greatest, of not greatest, because of the freeing of the slaves due to the civil war.

      i think Washington was the greatest, and I happen to think Lincoln was one of the worst, most destructive, and megalomaniacal presidents in our history. (See DiLorenzo’s work, as a start, for more on this.) So, I’m not happy that Washington’s day is diluted with the addition of Lincoln.

  4. As stated, ‘presidents day’ is a made up marketing ploy turned into a national holiday by federal unions looking for another Monday off.
    Initially Washington’s birthday, actually celebrated on the anniversary date of his birth, it was merged with Lincoln’s birthday celebrations (where observed) and moved to a designated Monday in order to add another three day weekend for our overworked federal servants.
    Now it has no more to do with remembering favorably the work done in creating this country to establish individual freedoms than groundhog day. It is another excuse for commercial sales, nothing more. And the last thing we need is another couple of holidays to ‘celebrate’ congress or the courts, both seeming to be united in diminishing individual freedoms as fast as possible.

  5. I once had a fascinating discussion with a Congressman who served in the 70’s and 80’s. He was one of the primary sponsors behind legislation that gradually reformed recognized federal holidays to the model which we have today.

    Apparently during the 70’s it was en vogue to try to get the federal or state governments to recognize a holiday for whatever cause was being advocated. One problem with this was that as part of the recognition the advocates wanted schools and public institutions to be closed for business for the day (in hopes private business would follow suit). The problem becomes quickly evident in that the government can’t simply close every other week to honor any given day (whether not that particular day has a lot of merit or not). So an informal consensus was developed among lawmakers that federal holidays would be standardized to the format that we more or less have today and that no further holidays that closed the government would be recognized. (The United States is one of the countries in the world that have the least amount of recognized public holidays).

  6. (cont)

    The addition of MLK day in 1983 was the last federal holiday to be recognized and there was a decent amount of dissenting votes who at least used the public reasoning that it went against this informal agreement (maybe there was more since MLK is a polarizing figure in American politics, but that was the reason stated in the public record by those who opposed it including, back then, Rep. Dick Cheney). Since then our public holiday schedule has been fixed at 10 days, although a few states recognize and additional day or two (like MA has Patriot’s Day).

    I brought up the subject with a veteran Congressman recently and he said that the “old timers” still more or less recognize the informal agreement that goes back to the 70’s and 80’s so any bill adding a federal public holiday that would close the government quietly gets nixed by the leadership and that is true for both parties.

    President’s Day was a way of compromising recognizing all President’s into one omni-bus day and was part of the overall federal government public holiday deal.

    How many other public holidays are recognized by other countries? The average is about 15 in Europe with India, China, and a few other topping out around 21.

    1. I don’t begrudge MLK his holiday. But it strikes me as wrong, unfair, and grossly disproportional that MLK gets his own holiday all to himself while Washington and Lincoln have to share a day. I understand the desire, maybe even the need (though that is debatable) among black Americans for at least one black American to be honored with a Federal Holiday, but as long as Washington and Lincoln have to share Presidents’ Day, why not expand the meaning of MLK’s Birthday to encompass other black Americans who contributed greatly to the American Experience – Black American Heroes Day, honoring not only MLK, but others like Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver, Hiram Revels, Crispus Attucks, The Tuskeegee Airmen, etc.?

      1. We already have an African American month which in functionality is almost three months, at least in education. It starts with MLK day and really doesn’t end until Spring Break.

        1. “You mean February, the shortest month of the year?”

          Nat X

        2. January to April is “almost three months?”

      2. Bad idea, DJ. I’m sorry if it offends you that MLK gets his own day while Washington and Lincoln have to share.

        It is at least possible to present Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a tribute an extraordinary individual deserving of special recognition. While the context of his achievements is bound up in America’s racial history, he can be presented as to some extent a figure who transcends race.

        But think of the alternative. If you turned MLK Day into something like Black American Heroes Day, recognizing a group, then the question would soon arise why blacks are singled out for such special treatment. Where is Hispanic American Heroes Day, Asian American Heroes Day, White American Heroes Day, etc.?

      3. Well, after Thanksgiving, we have Black Friday each year. (But I guess that’s not what you are talking about.) 🙂

    2. Public Enemy (the rap group) said the lack of an MLK day in Arizona was somehow white supremacist when they didn’t make the day a holiday in 1990. Eventually they caved.

      Song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zrFOb_f7ubw

      1. IIRC there were two holiday proposals – most AZ voters voted for one or the other but did not give a majority to either one, hence racist.

        1. One proposal would have established King Day and also abolished Columbus Day.

          The other proposal would have added King Day and kept Columbus Day and all the other holidays.


          If there were only one ballot measure on the subject I wonder what would have happened. Anyway, they approved a holiday later.

    3. The first black mayor of New Orleans resisted MLK day mostly because he wanted to make a deal to increase the city employees work week from 35 hours to 40 hours, with an attached pay increase. It didn’t fly.

  7. I have maintained and and would still agree today that the Presidency is becoming too unbalanced in terms of power. I am glad the Democrats and liberals have started to agree with me. Unlike them and most others though I believe the issue is inherently a structural one rather than a problem laid solely at the foot of Drumpf. I hope they and the media and Twitteratti etc will maintain their sudden principled stance for balance of powers and a reigned in executive when the next Dem President gets into office. But given past history I’m not holding my breath.

    1. “Drumpf?” How old are you, 12?

  8. “Why No Congress Day, Judiciary Day, or Separation of Powers Day?”

    EVERY day is Separation of Powers Day.

    1. There’s this to be said for Separation of Powers day: It IS traditional to wait for something to be dead before giving it a holiday… Congress and the Judiciary are still alive and kicking, though.

  9. May 1 is Law Day –


    And since it is customary to use the term “law” to describe judicial precedents, then isn’t this pretty much the same as Judiciary Day?

    (Incidentally, how does one dance around the Law Pole?)

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  11. Poor little deranged Bull Cow, spewing his droppings here again, because he can’t get HIS PRESIDENT out of his head.

    By the way, Bull Cow, Lincoln was a tyrant and a terrible President. I should find it amazing that you worship that piece of filth, considering that he was the definition of Presidential overreach, but you really are just a totalitarian thug, so long as said totalitarianism is your brand.

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