Monday, February 16, 2009

More History - - A Brief History of President's Day

Presidents' Day - What Does it Mean?
The observance of Presidents' Day in the United States is reminiscent of the Indian fable of the blind men and the elephant in the sense that the holiday seems to mean something different to everybody. In looking through the local newspaper, one could easily conclude that the modern holiday was created by merchants, just so they could hold their annual Presidents' Day sales. Depending on your perspective or what part of the country you're from, Presidents' Day is intended to honor George Washington, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, or all the American presidents. And for many of us who don't get the day off from work, the holiday seems to pass almost unnoticed. So what is Presidents' Day and how did it come about?

Washington's Birthplace National Monument in Westmoreland County, VA.
courtesy of the National Park Service Background

According to the Gregorian or "New Style" calendar that is in use today, George Washington was born on February 22, 1732, but according to the Julian or "Old Style" calendar that was in effect in England and her colonies until 1752, his birth date was February 11th. (This is because the new calendar added eleven days to the old date to bring the calendar year into step with the astronomical year.) So back in the 1790s, while Washington was still alive, some Americans celebrated his birthday on February 11th and some on February 22nd.

Along came Abraham Lincoln, another famous US president, who was also deserving of a special day of recognition. The only problem was that he was born on February 12th, and so now we found ourselves with two presidential birthdays that fell within a short time of one another. Prior to 1968, this fact didn't seem to bother anyone and things were running along pretty smoothly in the birthday celebration department -- February 22nd was observed as a federal public holiday to honor the birthday of George Washington and February 12th was observed as a public holiday (in most states) to honor the birthday of Abraham Lincoln.

Then things changed. In 1968, the 90th Congress was determined to create a uniform system of federal Monday holidays, so they voted to shift three existing holidays (including Washington's Birthday) to Mondays. The law took effect in 1971. As a result, Washington's Birthday holiday was changed from its fixed February 22 date to the third Monday in February. This change was not without controversy. There was some concern that Washington's identity would be lost (since the third Monday in February would never fall on his birth date of February 22nd). There was also an attempt to rename the public holiday "Presidents' Day", but this stalled in committee. "It was the collective judgment of the Committee on the Judiciary," stated Mr. William Moore McCulloch (R-Ohio) "that this [naming the day "President's Day"] would be unwise. Certainly, not all Presidents are held in the same high esteem as the Father of our Country. There are many who are not inclined to pay their respects to certain Presidents. Moreover, it is probable that the members of one political party would not relish honoring a President from the other political party whether he was in office, no matter how outstanding history may find his leadership."

The single holiday observance meant that the traditional 10-day separation between Washington's Birthday (February 22) and Lincoln's Birthday (February 12) had essentially been eliminated. However, while Congress had created a uniform federal holiday law, there was not a uniform holiday title agreement among the individual states. Even though most states with individual holidays honoring Washington and Lincoln shifted their state recognition date of Washington's Birthday to correspond to the third Monday in February, some states, including California, Idaho, Tennessee, Texas and others, chose not to retain the federal holiday title and renamed their state holiday "President's Day."

From that point forward, the growing use of the term Presidents' Day was largely a marketing phenomenon, as advertisers sought a catchall phrase to capitalize on the opportunity for three-day or weeklong sales. Gradually, the phrase "Presidents' Day" took hold and today has become part of the everyday vernacular. Interestingly, in 1999, bills were introduced in both the U.S. House (HR-1363) and Senate (S-978) to specify that the legal public holiday once referred to as Washington's Birthday be "officially" called by that name once again. Both bills died in committees.

If you are a traditionalist, you'll be happy to know that even though Washington's Birthday and Lincoln's Birthday have been replaced on the federal holiday register with a single day, many communities continue to observe the original holidays by staging pageants and reenactments of important milestones in the lives of Washington and Lincoln. The National Park Service features a number of historic sites and memorials to honor the lives of these two presidents, and therefore it is not surprising to find that many of the birthday observance activities and events are held at many of these locations.

The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Copyright © 2001 Darren Smith and licensors. All rights reserved. The George Washington Birthplace National Monument in Westmoreland County, VA, holds an annual birthday celebration on President's Day and on the actual birthday, with special colonial activities held throughout the day. Mount Vernon also honors George Washington with a birthday celebration weekend and an annual free day (on the third Monday of February), which usually draws between 10,000 and 18,000 visitors on that day alone.

Annual activities to commemorate Abraham Lincoln's birthday include: a February 12th wreath laying ceremony at Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site in Hodgenville, KY; Lincoln Day, held each year on the Sunday nearest February 12th at Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial in Lincoln City, IN, with a special program in the Abraham Lincoln Hall, followed by a wreath laying ceremony at Lincoln's mother's grave site; and special birthday programs at the Lincoln Home National Historic Site in Springfield, IL.

If you're a non-traditionalist, and believe that Presidents' Day should, in fact, be used to honor all American presidents, then you'll be happy to know that the National Park Service also maintains a number of sites that commemorate other past presidents, including John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses Grant, James Garfield, Teddy Roosevelt, William Taft, Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Jimmy Carter.
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Happy President's Day!

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