From the desk of Jan Hommel, Museum Director:
To some, the observance of Presidents’ Day in the United States goes unnoticed. The local newspapers splash ads of “President’s Day Sales!” and many get the day off from work, but have you ever stopped to think about this important day of recognizing our United States Presidents?
The story of Presidents’ Day begins in 1800. After President George Washington’s death in 1799, his February 22 birthday became a permanent day of remembrance. At the time, Washington was considered the most important figure in American history, and events like the 1832 centennial of his birth and the start of construction of the Washington Monument in 1848 were cause for national celebration.
While Washington’s Birthday was an unofficial observance for most of the 1800s, it was not until the late 1870s that it became a federal holiday. Senator Steven Wallace Dorsey of Arkansas was the first to propose the measure, and in 1879, President Rutherford B. Hayes signed it into law. The holiday initially only applied to the District of Columbia, but in 1885 it expanded to the whole country. At the time, Washington’s Birthday joined four other nationally recognized federal bank holidays—Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving—and was the first to celebrate the life of an individual American. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, signed into law in 1983, would be the second.
The shift from Washington’s Birthday to Presidents’ Day began in the late 1960s when Congress proposed a measure known as the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. Championed by Senator Robert McClory of Illinois, this law sought to shift the celebration of several federal holidays from specific dates to a series of predetermined Mondays. The proposed change was seen by many as a novel way to create more three-day weekends for the nation’s workers, and it was believed that ensuring holidays always fell on the same weekday would reduce employee absenteeism. While some argued that shifting holidays from their original dates would cheapen their meaning, the bill had widespread support from both the private sector and labor unions and was viewed as a surefire way to bolster retail sales.
The Uniform Monday Holiday Act also included a provision to combine the celebration of Washington’s Birthday with Abraham Lincoln’s, which fell on the proximate date of February 12. Lincoln’s Birthday had long been a state holiday in places like Illinois, and many supported joining the two days as a way of giving equal recognition to two of America’s most famous presidents.
The main piece of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act passed in 1968 and officially took effect in 1971 following an executive order from President Richard Nixon. Washington’s Birthday then shifted from the fixed date of February 22 to the third Monday of February. Columbus Day, Memorial Day and Veterans Day also moved from their traditionally designated dates. While Nixon’s order plainly called the newly placed holiday Washington’s Birthday, it was not long before the shift to Presidents’ Day began. The move away from February 22 led many to believe that the new date was created to honor both Washington and Abraham Lincoln, as it now fell between their two birthdays. Marketers soon jumped at the opportunity to play up the three-day weekend with sales, and “Presidents’ Day” bargains were advertised at stores around the country.
By the mid-1980s, Washington’s Birthday was known to many Americans as Presidents’ Day. This shift solidified in the early 2000s and half the 50 states changed the holiday’s name to Presidents’ Day on their calendars. Some states have even chosen to customize the holiday by adding new figures to the celebration.
Washington and Lincoln remain the two most recognized leaders, but Presidents’ Day is now seen as a day to recognize the lives and achievements of all of America’s chief executives. Some lawmakers have objected to this view, arguing that grouping George Washington and Abraham Lincoln together with less successful presidents minimizes their legacies. Congressional measures to restore Washington and Lincoln’s individual birthdays were proposed during the early 2000s, but failed to gain much attention. For its part, the federal government has held fast to the original creation of the holiday as a celebration of the country’s first president. The third Monday in February is now listed on official calendars as Washington’s Birthday.
Like Independence Day, Presidents’ Day is viewed as a time of patriotic celebration and remembrance. In its original beginning as Washington’s Birthday, the holiday gained special meaning during the difficulties of the Great Depression, when portraits of George Washington often graced the front pages of newspapers and magazines every February 22. In 1932, the date was used to reinstate the Purple Heart, a military decoration originally created by George Washington to honor soldiers killed or wounded while serving in the armed forces.
Today, many patriotic and historical groups use President’s Day as a date for hosting celebrations, reenactments and other events. A number of states also require that their public schools spend the days leading up to Presidents’ Day teaching students about the accomplishments of the presidents, often with a focus on the lives of Washington and Lincoln.