“When a nation’s Holy-days are treated with indifference and neglect, it should be considered a sign of national degeneracy and decay.”

–Walt Whitman

Burned-Over District, NY. When tradition faces off against the almighty buck, smart gamblers put their money on the money. Consider the Uniform Holiday Act of 1968, under which Congress decided that George Washington’s face on the dollar bill trumps George Washington’s birthday. The act provided that beginning in 1971, Memorial Day, Columbus Day, Veterans Day, and Washington’s Birthday (later demoted to the beloved “Presidents’ Day”) were to fall only on happy Mondays.

For years, Florida Senator George A. Smathers, the smarmy playboy best known as JFK’s sidekick in the pursuit of venereal happiness, had been the Braveheart of the three-day weekend. The eminently practical Smathers even wanted to junk Thanksgiving Thursday and bid bye-bye to the Fourth of July.

The Monday holiday bill found its weightiest ally in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The chamber’s arguments for uprooting the old holidays were no more elevated than the bottom line:

  • It would reduce absenteeism—no more calling in sick on Friday after getting smashed on a Memorial Day Thursday.
  • Production would not experience midweek disruptions.
  • Travel-dependent industries would prosper.

When the bill came to the House floor in May 1968, shrewd supporters had tacked on a provision establishing Columbus Day as a national holiday. This ensured the measure’s passage, despite the futile efforts of Rep. Edward Derwinski (R-IL) to rename Columbus Day “Discoverers of America Day” as a way to honor Polish explorer Jan z Kolna and “put an end to the Polish jokes which have swept the country.” (Lech Walesa eventually did that.)

The Daughters of the American Revolution “vigorously protest[ed] this downgrading of our national heroes,” but the white-haired bluebloods were no match for Chamber of Commerce greenbacks. Neither was the ramshackle Lord’s Day Alliance, whose director complained, “Most ministers like long holidays about as much as they do the devil. The choir, ushers, Sunday School teachers, and the whole congregation join the mass exodus.”

Congressman Robert McClory (R-IL), who co-managed the bill on the floor, gamely conjectured that families would spend the long weekends visiting Arlington National Cemetery, Gettysburg, and other “famed battlegrounds and monuments,” including, presumably, the Tomb of the Unknown Shopper.

New York Democrat Samuel Stratton, self-proclaimed “father of the Monday-holiday legislation” (but no friend to the Father of our Country), declared that three-day weekends would “refresh and restore the spirits and the energies” of federal employees.

The bill’s cantankerous opponents were not impressed. Michigan Republican Edward Hutchinson called it “a rejection of our historic past”; North Carolina Democrat Basil Whitener grumbled that “a few business organizations would make more profit on Mondays” at the expense of “the tradition and background of our Nation…Let us not peg everything to the dollar.”

Rep. Joe Waggoner (D-LA) thundered, “Holidays and commemorative events were not created for the purpose of trade or commerce…You have helped to destroy history for future generations.” The intrepid Waggoner, whose district must have had a shortage of Knights of Columbus, was the only member to take aim at Mr. 1492: “I think it needs to be said since we seem to be so proud of Columbus, that when he left for this country he did not know where he was going, and when he got here, he did not know where he was, and when he got back, he did not know where he had been.”

The traditionalists had a monopoly on wit, but then don’t they always? Fletcher Thompson (R-GA) offered an amendment to rename our holidays “Uniform Holiday No. 1, Uniform Holiday No. 2,” etc. The immortal skinflint H.R. Gross (R-IA), who had opposed spending money to keep lit the eternal flame over JFK’s grave, proposed to move Christmas and New Year’s Day to Monday. The Mondaynes were not amused.

The Uniform Holiday Act of 1968 passed the House, 212-83, and the Senate by voice vote, without debate. “This is the greatest thing that has happened to the travel industry since the invention of the automobile,” rejoiced the president of the National Association of Travel Organizations.

Rep. Dan Kuykendall (R-TN) saw it differently: “If we do this, 10 years from now our schoolchildren will not know what February 22 means. They will not know or care when George Washington was born. They will know that in the middle of February they will have a 3-day weekend for some reason. That day will come.”

That day has come. Happy Columbus Day.

(An earlier version of this essay appeared in the extinct American Enterprise.)

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Bill Kauffman
Bill Kauffman was born on November 15 (also the birthday of Bobby Dandridge) in the otherwise forgettable year of 1959. He was an all-star Little League shortstop for the Lions Club Cubs but soon thereafter his talents eroded. After an idyllic childhood in his ancestral home of Batavia, New York, birthplace of Anti-Masonry, he was graduated from Batavia High School in 1977. He earned, more or less, a B.A. from the University of Rochester in 1981 and went therefrom to the staff of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the only dairy farmer in the U.S. Senate. Two and a half years later he left Moynihan’s staff a bohemian Main Street anarchist who loved the Beats, the New England transcendentalists, early 20th century local colorists (Sarah Orne Jewett his Maine gal), cowpunk music, and the crazy old America. Neil Diamond and Karen Carpenter, too, but don’t tell anyone. He bummed around out west for a while, sleeping in bus stations and writing derivative poetry in Salt Lake City flophouses (nah, he’s not a Mormon, just a BYU fan) before an ill-starred year in graduate school at the UR. He took a seminar with Christopher Lasch and thought on it. In the spring of 1985 he flew west to become an assistant editor with Reason magazine. He had great fun in Santa Barbara with that crew of congenial editors drinking far into the night at Eddie Van Cleeve’s Sportsman’s Lounge, but in ’86 he flew east to become the magazine’s Washington editor. Always homesick, Kauffman persuaded his lovely and talented wife Lucine, a Los Angelena, to move back to Batavia in 1988 in what he called a “one-year experiment”—the year to be measured, apparently, in Old Testament terms. They’re still there—or, more accurately, five miles north in Elba (apt name for an exile!), where Lucine is Town Supervisor. She may well be the highest-ranking Armenian-American elected official in the country, at least until the voters of California send Cher to the U.S. Senate. Take that, Turks! Lucine and Bill have a daughter, Gretel, 17, who writes and acts and plays piano and French horn. Their lab mutt, Victoria, whose tail graces the accompanying photo, is now departed, to their sorrow, but a cat, Duffy, darts in and out of the house when the mood strikes. Bill is the author of nine books: Every Man a King (Soho Press/1989), a novel, which was recently rescued from the remainder bin by a New York Sun article proclaiming it the best political satire of the last century (the Sun thereupon set); Country Towns of New York (McGraw-Hill/1994), a travel book about God’s country; America First! Its History, Culture and Politics (Prometheus/1995), a cultural history of isolationism which Benjamin Schwarz in the Atlantic called the best introduction to the American anti-imperialist tradition; With Good Intentions? Reflections on the Myth of Progress in America (Praeger/1998), his worst-seller, a sympathetic account of critics of highways, school consolidation, a standing army, and the Siren Progress; Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette: A Mostly Affectionate Account of a Small Town’s Fight to Survive (Henry Holt/2003; Picador ppb. 2004), a memoirish book about his hometown which won the 2003 national “Sense of Place” award from Writers & Books; Look Homeward, America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals and Front-Porch Anarchists (ISI/2006), which the American Library Association named one of the best books of 2006 and which won the Andrew Eiseman Writers Award; Ain’t My America: The Long Noble History of Antiwar Conservatism and Middle American Anti-Imperialism (Henry Holt/ Metropolitan/2008), which Barnes & Noble named one of the best books of 2008; Forgotten Founder: Drunken Prophet: The Life of Luther Martin (ISI/2008), a biography of a brilliant dipsomaniacal Anti-Federalist who warned us this was gonna happen; and Bye Bye, Miss American Empire (Chelsea Green/2010), a cheerful account of dissolution. Bill is a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal and a columnist for The American Conservative. He has written for numerous publications, including The American Scholar, the Los Angeles Times Book Review, The Nation, Chronicles, the Independent and The Spectator of London, Counterpunch, Orion, University Bookman, and Utne Reader. He is vice president of the Genesee County Baseball Club, which owns the Batavia Muckdogs of the New York-Penn Baseball League. Come summertime, he can be found in the 3rd base bleachers at Dwyer Stadium. He is also active in the officerless (of course) John Gardner Society. Bill is more handsome than the photo on this site would suggest. See books written by Bill Kauffman.

9 COMMENTS

  1. How sad that so many elements of our culture today were born from a materialist viewpoint of money! I wonder what a movement to re-establish original holidays would turn out like.

  2. “The traditionalists had a monopoly on wit, but then don’t they always?”

    Yes, we do. But it’s not all our own doing. Progressives give us tremendous material to work with.

  3. Kauffman,
    Cripes but a gem here! There really was once a lot of humor in politics when folks thought with their brain rather than an average of the Quinnipiac and Gallup Polls. The Waggoner quote on Columbus is priceless and fairly well sums up that cult of The American Continent As Divine Gift For Grifters and Mercenaries.

    Here Here to Daniel McCarthy. I think I’ll take Tuesday off and not visit a single shopping center.

  4. Good Article it just reminded about the historic days .
    On the other hand its sad to know that people are on willing to remember such days and not knowing the reason behind holidays.

Comments are closed.