What do you really know about Presidents’ Day? Some readers may remember celebrating George Washington’s Birthday every February, and some may even recall celebrating Washington’s and Abraham Lincoln’s birthday during the second month of the year. But did you know that “Presidents’ Day” is NOT an official holiday? What else could you discover about this mysterious, patriotic celebration?
Early Origins of Presidents’ Day
The early origins of modern-day Presidents’ Day reach all the way back to 1800. After George Washington’s death in 1799, there was widespread desire to remember him and commemorate his birthday, which was on February 22. In those days, Washington was almost universally viewed as the most important person in our history, and so it was only befitting that we honor him and his contributions to our country on his birthday. Large events included the centennial celebration of his birth in 1832 and the beginning of construction on the Washington Monument in 1848.
Still, at the time and all the way until 1879, this was an unofficial, though popular, observance. In 1879, President Rutherford B. Hayes signed a measure into law officially naming Washington’s Birthday as an official observance, although at the time it only applied in Washington DC. It was later expanded to cover the entire nation in 1885. This made only four nationally recognized bank holidays: Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, The Fourth of July, and Washington’s Birthday.
Washington’s Birthday was the first and only federal holiday to celebrate the life of an individual American. Since then, there has been only one more. Can you guess who it commemorates? (Answer is below)
Presidents and Long Weekends
What do presidents and long weekends have in common? If you guessed that most are spent at Camp David in the mountains of Maryland, you guessed wrong (although many likely are). The real origin of what we know as Presidents’ Day began with the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. Enacted in 1968, this legislation provided workers with a number of three-day weekends surrounding major holidays. It was thought by many lawmakers and labor union executives that providing set holidays that always fell on the same weekday would reduce the number of employee absences in the workplace.
It also contained a provision to combine the celebrations of George Washington’s and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays. Many states, including his home state of Illinois, routinely celebrated Lincoln’s birthday as official state holidays. While this generated some criticism, moving the celebrations from the actual birthdays to a set date each year for both made sense to the majority and the law went into effect in 1971 under President Richard M. Nixon. It is now celebrated on the third Monday of February each year, which never falls on either Washington’s nor Lincoln’s actual birthdays.
During debate over the bill in Congress, a name change was also proposed – Presidents’ Day – by Senator Robert McClory of Illinois. This brought about fierce opposition from Virginia lawmakers (Washington’s home state) and it was eventually dropped. The official name for the holiday on the Uniform Monday Holiday Act is Washington’s Birthday.
Why Celebrate Former Presidents?
Some may even wonder why we should celebrate our former presidents. No doubt, there are fiercely-held opinions about who have served us well and who did not. Indeed, history reveals that Americans’ opinions of her presidents actually shifts through the generations. For example, once vilified in most circles, President Harry S. Truman is now viewed as one of our wisest, most honest, and most capable national leaders. President Dwight D. Eisenhower was commonly viewed as a lazy, old, bumbling caretaker, while history has unequivocally revealed that he astutely manipulated the levers of power behind the scenes more than most of our chief executives.
Regardless of your political party affiliation or opinion about specific presidents, they play a unique role in our government, indeed in our world, that is virtually unmatched. Our form of government specifies a chief executive with certain powers and authority as part of the Constitutional system of checks and balances on government. We the people should celebrate our form of government, flaws and all, as a guarantee of our individual rights and freedoms.
This writer has always been interested in the lives of past presidents, and enjoys a hobby of reading presidential biographies. Much can be learned by how they made decisions, both right and wrong, that can be applied to modern, even personal, living.
Here in The Volunteer State of Tennessee, we boast of having produced three notable presidents:
- Andrew Jackson
- Andrew Johnson
- James K. Polk
The Tennessee Presidential Trail officially opened on Presidents’ Day in 2017, highlighting the lives, careers, homes, and accomplishments of these three Tennessee chief executives. Beginning with The Andrew Johnson National Historic Site and Cemetery in nearby Greeneville, the trail runs west through The James K. Polk Home and Museum in Columbia, and onward to three locations in Nashville: The Hermitage – Official Home of Andrew Jackson, The Tennessee State Museum, and the Tennessee State Capitol.
The Current Incarnation of Presidents’ Day
While President Nixon’s executive order very plainly enacted Washington’s Birthday, the shift in dates to the third Monday of February led many to believe the holiday was actually commemorating the birthdays of two of our most notable presidents – Washington and Lincoln. In marketing circles, advertising began appearing calling the holiday “Presidents’ Day.” By the mid-1980s, the holiday routinely bore that name, even on printed calendars.
By the early 2000s, half the 50 states had changed the name on state calendars to Presidents’ Day. Now, it is a rare calendar indeed that actually lists the third Monday of February as Washington’s Birthday, but that remains the official name of the holiday. The federal government has never legally changed the name, and official federal calendars still list Washington’s Birthday.
Did you learn anything about Presidents’ Day? Who is your favorite President? Record your answer in the comments below.
OK, trivia time: to answer the question earlier in the article, who is the only other American to have a federal holiday commemorating their memory and accomplishments, after George Washington? Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, enacted and signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, and first celebrated in 986. Now remembered each year on the third Monday of January.