If you have trouble keeping Presidential birthdays in order, you are not alone. How the country made the transition from an exuberant celebration of George Washington’s Birthday to “Presidents’ Day” is an awkward, confusing, and ultimately—disappointing tale.
Washington was born on February 11, 1731, by the Julian calendar. Now the Julian system was a dandy way of counting days, but not accurate enough for the modern world of 1752. In that year, Britain and her colonies adopted the Gregorian calendar, which jumped ahead eleven days and set January as the first month of the year instead of March.
This more accurate calendar shifted George’s birthday from the 11th to February 22. In the interest of scientific advancement, I’m sure George didn’t mind. But it would have meant a delay in his twenty-first birthday. I don’t know if turning twenty-one back then meant as much as it does now. Maybe he wrote about it in a diary, and perhaps a historian reading this will let us know.
Fast forward to 1796. Washington is now sixty-five, and in his last full year as President of the United States. There are fifteen states in the Union, and Tennessee will enter the Union on June 21, 1796.
I doubt any of us alive today can understand the depth of affection that the citizens of this new country felt for George Washington. And in the year 1796, a lot of citizens decided it was time to celebrate George’s birthday. Some celebrated on the 11th of February, and some celebrated on the 22th. I bet George ate cake on both days, just to make them all happy, because that’s the kind of fellow he was.
With ever increasing enthusiasm, Americans continued to celebrate George Washington’s birthday (the one on the 22nd) well into the 19th Century as a genuine national holiday, with no official government decree needed.
There were parties and balls, speeches and receptions, and many a toast offered in honor of George all across the country. Following other federal holiday legislation, it took until 1885 before President Chester Arthur signed a bill making February 22 a holiday for all federal workers (meaning they got the day off with pay).
In the meantime, another man who would be president was born in February. Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809. Assassinated April 14, 1865, both houses of Congress formally celebrated Lincoln’s birthday the following February 12, 1866. Every year thereafter, small celebrations were held in Lincoln’s honor until his birthday too, received national recognition.
Unlike Washington’s birthday, Lincoln’s birthday was never made an official federal holiday, although many states set aside February 12 to be a state holiday. That Lincoln’s birthday was never made a federal holiday was a huge disappointment to many Lincoln admirers, but that it didn’t slow down celebrating his birthday, as millions of school children will attest.
So how did George Washington, the Father of Our Country get a birthday makeover? By the same body who made his birthday a federal holiday to begin with: Congress.
Prior to 1971, there were nine federal holidays that were celebrated on the day of the calendar upon which the date fell. If Washington’s Birthday, February 22 fell on a Thursday, it was celebrated on Thursday. Another example is Memorial Day. It was always the last day of May, no matter what day of the week that was.
But the Ninetieth Congress taking office in 1968, was determined to create a uniform system of federal Monday holidays, and created legislation (HR 15951) to take effect in 1971: it would move three existing holidays to Monday, and created a new Monday holiday to boot.
Washington’s Birthday was shifted from February 22, to the third Monday in February. Memorial Day was moved to the last Monday in May. A “new” federal holiday was created for the second Monday in October: Columbus Day.
Veterans Day was reassigned to the fourth Monday in October. However, by 1980, veterans organizations and state governments had applied so much pressure that Veterans Day was returned to the historic Armistice Day, November 11, where it remains.
So what ideas and pressure led Congress to make decisions like this? That’s part two of this story, in how we got from George Washington’s Birthday to Presidents’ Day.