14. Update Our Public Symbols

A Plan to Renew the Promise of American Life, Plank 14

Plank 13     Contents     Summary

Plank 14. Update our public symbols.


Specific Recommendations

14.1. To increase voter turnout, hold federal elections on the second Monday in May instead of the first week of November and make Election Day a federal holiday.

14.2. As a result of the foregoing change, convene Congress on June 1st instead of January 3rd (which will eliminate congressional lame-duck sessions) and inaugurate the president on July 1st instead of January 20th (which will shorten presidential transitions).

14.3. To simplify federal budgeting, begin the federal fiscal year on January 1st instead of October 1st.

14.4. Update the ten federal holidays, and the images on United States coins and currency, to celebrate American principles and achievements.


Explanation

This plank is primarily about two things: our public calendar and our public symbols.

These may seem trivial matters, compared to the other matters discussed in this plan. But I think they’re very important. Our common symbols and celebrations are essential to our self-understanding. They tell the world what we regard as our greatest achievements and highest ideals. And ideally, they inspire our children to carry on what’s best in our way of life.

Admittedly none of the following reforms is essential to our national happiness,  but I do think they would benefit us. See what you think.

Election Day

To increase voter turnout, I would move Election Day to a warmer time of year, make it a federal holiday, and have it coincide with (my proposed) Flag Day, on the second Monday in May—a beautiful time of year.

One benefit of making Election Day a federal holiday is that it would undercut states’ incentives to have protracted voting periods (early voting) and voting-by-mail schemes, which, under the ballot integrity plank, we would eschew.

Terms of Office

As a logical consequence of the foregoing change, and more importantly to eliminate lame-duck sessions (a pernicious quirk of our outmoded calendar), I propose that each year Congress ordinarily convene on May 1st instead of January 3rd and that after each presidential election the president and vice president be sworn in on July 1st instead of January 20th.

Fiscal Year

As a logical consequence of the foregoing changes, it would make sense to shift the beginning of the federal fiscal year. I would have it begin on January 1st rather than its current date, October 1st.

Prior to 1976, the federal fiscal year began on July 1st. Since 1976, it has begun on October 1st. That three-month shift was made in order to facilitate a “reformed” congressional budget process that has mostly been ignored. Congress still can’t seem to get its work done, despite the extra three months. Since I’m proposing to shift the whole federal electoral cycle back by about half a year, into the warmer months, it makes sense to move the federal fiscal year back as well. Moving it back three months enables us to synchronize it with the tax year and the calendar year, so that all three periods would now begin on January 1st—a gain for simplicity and common sense.

Federal Holidays

Our current federal holiday calendar could really stand an update. Think about it. We have holidays to honor certain groups (workers, veterans, the fallen), but not to honors who are arguably just as important (mothers, taxpayers, first responders). Why? And we have holidays to honor certain illustrious individuals (George Washington, Martin Luther King, Jr., Christopher Columbus) but not to others equally illustrious (Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison) or to any woman. Meanwhile, Washington’s Birthday has quietly devolved into a noxious thing called “Presidents Day.” Really? Must we celebrate Millard Fillmore and Richard Nixon? Most people can’t tell you what Labor Day celebrates or explain the difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day. Some are offended by Columbus Day. And apart from July 4th, there is not a single federal holiday dedicated to America’s principles. Surely we can do better!

There are currently ten federal holidays, spread out over the year. They’re somewhat clumped into winter, with two in January and two in November. Five by law are observed on a Monday in order to maximize that wonderful creation, the three-day weekend. Overall, it strikes me as a pretty good arrangement. I would just spread it out a bit more evenly and update a few of the holidays to downplay the emphasis on individuals and groups.

Specifically, I’d keep the five most traditional holidays (viz., Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, Independence Day, and Memorial Day), and I’d eliminate the other five, all of which celebrate favored individuals or groups (Martin Luther King’s Birthday, Washington’s Birthday, Labor Day, Columbus Day, and Veterans Day) in favor of five new days that celebrate important American achievements and symbols (namely, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, Emancipation [i.e., the Thirteenth Amendment], Civil Rights [the Fourteenth Amendment], and the American Flag).

Our current calendar:

  • JAN 1   New Year’s Day                                  Fixed
  • JAN      Martin Luther King’s Birthday    Last Monday
  • FEB      Washington’s Birthday                  Third Monday
  • MAY     Memorial Day                                     Last Monday
  • JUL 4    Independence Day                          Fixed
  • SEP       Labor Day                                            First Monday
  • OCT       Columbus Day                                   Second Monday
  • NOV 11  Veterans Day                                     Fixed
  • NOV       Thanksgiving Day                            Fourth Thursday
  • DEC 25  Christmas Day                                 Fixed

My suggested reformed calendar:

  • JAN 1       New Year’s Day                               Fixed
  • FEB          Civil Rights Day                               Third Monday
  • MAY         Flag Day / Election Day               Second Monday
  • MAY         Memorial Day                                   Last Monday
  • JUN          Constitution Day                             Third Monday
  • JUL 4       Independence Day                         Fixed
  • SEP          Bill of Rights Day                             First Monday
  • OCT         Emancipation Day                          Second Monday
  • NOV        Thanksgiving Day                           Fourth Thursday
  • DEC 25   Christmas Day                                 Fixed

Comparison:

  • Old: Calendar clumpy (2 holidays in Jan., 2 in Nov., none in March, April, June, Aug.).
  • New: Calendar less clumpy (2 holidays in May, none in March, April, Aug.).
  • Old: 5 Monday holidays.
  • New: 6 Monday holidays.
  • Old: Fiscal year starts Oct. 1.
  • New: Fiscal year starts Jan. 1.
  • Old: Congress convenes Jan. 3.
  • New: Congress convenes June 1.
  • Old: President inaugurated Jan. 20.
  • New: President inaugurated July 1.
  • Old: Election day is first Tuesday in Nov. (Nov. 2 through 8).
  • New: Election day is second Monday in May (May 8 through 14).

Currency Images

The current practice of highlighting individuals on United States coins and currency bothers me. It smacks of monarchy. Traditionally the face on the currency belongs to the sovereign (for example, the Roman emperor or the British monarch). We’re a republic, not a monarchy! Since the American people are our sovereign, why not celebrate them? If we merely try to update the currency pantheon, we get into inevitable fights over issues of political correctness, focusing on secondary qualities like sex and ethnicity rather than true greatness. In lieu of faces on our national coins and bills, I would substitute inspiring symbols, patriotic scenes, important historical events, or inspiring quotations.

If for no other reason, we should put key quotations from the Constitution on our money so that politicians might actually read them.

But seriously. Instead of …

  • $1 Washington
  • $2 Jefferson
  • $5 Lincoln
  • $10 Hamilton
  • $20 Jackson
  • $50 Grant
  • $100 Franklin

… on the greenback, I’d suggest:

  • $1 Washington crossing the Delaware
  • $2 Lexington and Concord (“The shot heard round the world …”)
  • $5 Lincoln at Gettysburg (“That government of the people, by the people, for the people …”)
  • $10 The Bill of Rights (“Congress shall make no law …”)
  • $20 The Declaration of Independence (“We hold these truths …”)
  • $50 Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lincoln Memorial (“I have a dream …”)
  • $100 The signing of the Constitution (“A republic, if you can keep it.”)

And likewise with our coins. There are myriad possibilities. The important thing is to shift the emphasis toward actions and ideas.

State of the Union

A pet peeve. Presidents should deliver their annual State of the Union addresses in writing, as all presidents did from Jefferson through Taft. The yearly “SOTU” ritual has become ludicrous, with members of Congress jumping up and down in partisan demonstrations and presidents rudely shaming sitting Supreme Court justices to their faces on national television. Ugh! The press should refuse to televise these awful displays, invitees should refuse to attend them, and the public should refuse to watch them. Harumph!

Joint Sessions of Congress

Another pet peeve. I hate speeches by foreigners to joint sessions of Congress. The honor of addressing the elected representatives of the American people has been reduced, through frequency, into a photo op for foreign VIPs who happen to be passing through town. Only Lafayette has deserved such an honor, in my humble opinion—and maybe Churchill.

Pledge of Allegiance

I have an embarrassing confession to make. I am not a fan of the Pledge of Allegiance—or rather, of its current wording, which to my ear sounds too chauvinist, too much like “My government, right or wrong!” Pledging one’s allegiance is of course quite admirable, when done sincerely and voluntarily, and I have no problem with having an official pledge. But the wording matters. In place of the current wording, I would substitute the “We hold these truths” paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, a stirring creed that sets forth the first principles of our republic and distinguishes us from every other nation. Incidentally it’s also one the most eloquent passages in the English language.

National Anthem

Another shameful confession. I’m underwhelmed by “The Star-Spangled Banner,” our official national anthem, which only became such by an act of Congress in 1931. (“Hail, Columbia,” the song’s forgotten nineteenth-century competitor, is also pretty uninspiring.) In the place of Francis Scott Key’s vivid, but not-terribly-imaginative celebration of our flag by the light of exploding bombs and mortars, I would make “America the Beautiful” our national anthem. It is a better poem, with a better melody. And—the clincher, for me—the damn thing is actually singable.

America, America!
God shed his grace on thee,
and crown thy good with brotherhood
from sea to shining sea!


Constitutional Amendments

This plank requires one constitutional amendment, to update the starting date of federal terms of office.


Benefits

Will better align our civic symbols and celebrations with our principles and ideals.


Summary

Plank 13     Contents     Summary

Revised: June 9, 2016.

Published: June 21, 2013.

Author: Dean Clancy.

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