Born in 1732 in Westmoreland County, Virginia, George Washington’s birth day fell on the 11th of February—Old Style—a reference to the Julian Calendar. Twenty years later in 1752, a more accurate method of keeping days was introduced—the Gregorian Calendar. With the advent of the new calendar, Washington’s birthday shifted to February 22.
But the adaptation of this change was slow, as shown by this peek into the correspondence between the Comte de Rochambeau and Washington (from the George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress):
“Tomorrow is Your Excellency’s birthday anniversary, I propose to celebrate it, in a great ball which I give on that account.” —Rochambeau to Washington, Feb. 10, 1782.
[Rochambeau’s letter is in the Washington Papers]
Which was graciously acknowledged by Washington with:
“Permit me to make my sincere acknowledgments to your Excellency for the honor you have done me in celebrating my Birth day. You have thereby made a new addition to the Friendship and Esteem with which I have the honor etc.” —George Washington to Jean B. Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau, February 23, 1782
The Comte de Rochambeau wasn’t the only one throwing a party on Washington’s Birthday. From simple tavern toasts to grand parties and balls, the nation celebrated George Washington’s Birthday—and some recognized February 11 and others recognized February 22, though gradually over the next hundred years the date of February 22 prevailed.
Finally in 1885, President Chester A. Arthur formalized what the nation had been celebrating all along, and declared February 22 a federal holiday. We the people celebrated on the 22nd for almost one hundred years and then Congress voted to change Washington’s Birthday to float on the third Monday in February (which went into effect January 1, 1971). Somewhere along the way, George Washington’s Birthday morphed into President’s Day and our first president got lost in the shuffle.
But today I am taking a stand, and I ask you to join me in a toast: To George Washington, The Father of Our Country, on the anniversary of his 276th birthday.