The New Republic’s Brian Beutler has suggested that April 9, the anniversary of the end of the Civil War, be a national holiday (he calls it New Birth of Freedom Day). He also called on the federal and state governments to rename everything currently named after Confederates – politicians, generals and others who committed treason against the U.S.
Not a bad idea. After all, it’s bizarre that a Jefferson Davis Highway is within spitting distance of the nation’s capital, that several Army bases are named for Confederate figures, and that Davis and Robert E. Lee and others are commemorated not only all over the South but other parts of the nation as well.
But a debate over whether a Freedom Day to celebrate the Union’s victory should be elevated to the same status as the 10 official federal holidays points to a broader need. The U.S. needs a holiday classification, and the rituals to go with it, for other important dates as well.
Right now, we de facto treat Sept. 11 and Lincoln’s birthday as more important than, say, V-J Day (winning World War II) or Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s birthday. But beyond the 10 official holidays, what currently counts as worth singling out depends on the whims of presidents and the media. Is Pearl Harbor Day a sort-of holiday? Will Sept. 11 merit an official commemoration 20 or 50 years from now?
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Freedom Day, if it doesn’t displace Columbus Day as a first-tier holiday, would be an excellent candidate for a new designation; so would Juneteenth, Women’s Equality Day, Earth Day and birthdays of great Americans such as James Madison and Benjamin Franklin.
As a nation dedicated to politics at its founding, the U.S. is well-served by debating and deciding what we collectively remember about our moments of greatness, and about the men and women who deserve fame, in the best sense of the word.
There remains the question of how exactly to make these days “official” without adding a federal-government vacation day. Begin a tradition of presidential proclamations with a common format for these occasions? Hold a ceremony in Congress? I’d like to see practical ideas for official recognition that might encourage popular participation.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist covering U.S. politics.