New Yorkers Don't Honor Our Presidents as We Should

There was an ad in one of the morning papers on Pesidents Day.

It extolled the virtues of a bed the company was selling with the words: “George Washington {Wishes} He Slept Here.” The advertising copy went on to say: “Celebrate Presidents Day! Buy One Piece at 45% Off.”

February is the month in which two of our greatest presidents, Washington and Lincoln, were born. To use these names, hallowed in American history, to sell beds, mattresses, cars or widgets is a desecration. No wonder  so many kids are growing up with such limited knowledge of the history of America.

New York City kids especially should be made aware of how deeply the history of these American heroes was linked to the history of their city.

George Washington had his troops listen to a reading of the Declaration of Independence. He sat on his horse as an officer read the text of that document on a parade ground near City Hall: “When in the course of human events….”

That night a mob rushed down Broadway to Bowling Green and pulled down the statue of King George III.  It was in New York that Washington led his ragtag army in the Battle of Brooklyn and Long Island. It was in New York that, in 1789, he was inaugurated as the first President of the United States.

Abraham Lincoln made a major speech in his campaign for the presidency in 1860 at Cooper Union. He told a group of distinguished New Yorkers that right makes might, not the other way around. It was the prelude to the bloody Civil War, in which he himself was consumed. After his assassination, his body lay in state at City Hall. Thousands of grief-stricken New Yorkers filed by.

When I was a kid we celebrated both Lincoln’s Birthday and Washington’s Birthday separately. From the time we entered kindergarten to the end of our high school career, we honored these two presidents who meant so much to the country, New York ---and the world.

Now what do we do? We have department store sales. It’s become a holiday to sell merchandise, not to pay tribute to our greatest heroes. Once, in the 18th and 19th centuries, these men were honored by the ringing of church bells and the booming of big guns firing salutes.  Now, on this holiday, we hear the beeping of scanners for credit cards, and the day varies each year according to which date in February falls on a Monday, thereby creating a three-day weekend.

Back in 1865, on the morning of April 24, when Lincoln’s body arrived from Washington at the Jersey City ferry terminal, singing societies sang funeral hymns and the casket was borne by water into downtown New York, where thousands of people waited silently.

The cortege moved through the streets. The body lay in state at City Hall, which was draped in black, inside and out. More than 120,000 passed by the coffin and then, the next day, it was borne through the streets of New York to the railroad station at 34th Street and Ninth Avenue for the long trip back to Illinois. On the way there was no sound but the dirge of drums, bells and guns. People removed their hats, bowed their heads as the procession passed.

Today, some of us rush towards the items on special sale.  Many of us ignore the memories of the men we are supposed to be honoring. It’s a desecration that should make us sad.


Contact Us