Origins of Presidents Day

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The day is also now widely known as Presidents’ Day and is often an occasion to honor all persons who have served as president, not just George Washington.

The federal holiday honoring Washington was originally implemented by an Act of Congress in 1879 for government offices in Washington (America) and expanded in 1885 to include all federal offices  (America F.-F. C.) (23 Stat. 516). As the first federal holiday to honor an American president, the holiday was celebrated on Washington’s actual birthday, February 22. On January 1, 1971, the federal holiday was shifted to the third Monday in February by the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. This date places it between February 15 and 21, which makes the name “Washington’s Birthday” in some sense a misnomer, since it never occurs on Washington’s actual birthday, February 22. (A rough analog of this phenomenon can be seen in Commonwealth realms, where the reigning monarch’s official birthday is celebrated without regard to their actual date of birth.)

Centennial_celebration_of_Washington's_birth_day,_Philadelphia,_February_1832
Centennial_celebration_of_Washington’s_birth_day,_Philadelphia,_February_1832

 

The first attempt to create a Presidents Day occurred in 1951 when the “President’s Day National Committee” was formed by Harold Stonebridge Fischer of Compton, California, who became its National Executive Director for the next two decades. The purpose was not to honor any particular President but to honor the office of the Presidency. It was first thought that March 4, the original inauguration day, should be deemed Presidents Day. However, the bill recognizing the March 4 date was stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee (which had authority over federal holidays). That committee felt that, because of its proximity to Lincoln’s and Washington’s Birthdays, three holidays so close together would be unduly burdensome. During this time, however, the Governors of a majority of the individual states issued proclamations declaring March 4 to be Presidents’ Day in their respective jurisdictions.

An early draft of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act would have renamed the holiday to “Presidents’ Day” to honor the birthdays of both Washington and Lincoln, which would explain why the chosen date falls between the two, but this proposal failed in committee, and the bill was voted on and signed into law on June 28, 1968, keeping the name as Washington’s Birthday.

By the mid-1980s, with a push from advertisers, the term “Presidents’ Day” began its public appearance.

In Washington’s adopted hometown of Alexandria, Virginia, celebrations are held throughout the month of February.

Washington’s Birthday is a United States federal holiday celebrated on the third Monday of February in honor of George Washington, the first President of the United States, who was born on February 22, 1732. It can occur on the 15th through the 21st of February inclusive.

Works Cited

America, f.-f. C. (n.d.). legisworks.org. Retrieved Jan. 20th, 2017, from legisworks.org: http://legisworks.org/sal/20/stats/STATUTE-20-Pg277b.pdf

America, F.-F. C. (n.d.). legisworks.org. Retrieved Jan. 20th, 2017, from legisworks.org: http://legisworks.org/sal/23/stats/STATUTE-23-Pg516c.pdf

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