Celebrating All Our Presidents, Past and Present
In 1885, February 22 was officially designated as a holiday in recognition of George Washington’s Birthday. However, the holiday became popularly known as President’s Day when the Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act in 1968 (taking effect in 1971), when its celebration was moved from February 22 to the third Monday in February, in an attempt to create more three-day weekends for the nation’s workers. Presidents Day is now popularly viewed as a day to celebrate all U.S. presidents, past and present.
The story of Presidents Day begins in 1800. Following the death of George Washington in 1799, his February 22 birthday became a perennial remembrance.
At the time, Washington was venerated as 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 1800’s, 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. At the time, Washington’s Birthday joined four other nationally recognized federal bank holidays — Christmas Day, New Years Day, Independence Day, and Thanksgiving Day — and was the first to celebrate the life of an individual American. Martin Luther King Day, signed into law in 183, was the second.
Uniform Monday Holiday Act
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 also had widespread support from both the private sector and labor unions.
The Uniform Monday Holiday Act also included a provision to combine the celebration of Washington’s birthday with that of Abraham Lincoln, which fell on February 12. Lincoln’s Birthday had long been a state holiday in places like Illinois, and many supported joining both birthdays as a way of giving equal recognition to two of America’s most famous statesmen.
McClory was among the measure’s major proponents, and he even floated the idea of renaming the holiday Presidents Day. This proved to be a point of contention for lawmakers from George Washington’s home state of Virginia, and the proposal was eventually dropped.
Nevertheless, 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 M. Nixon. Washington’s Birthday was shifted from the fixed date of February 22 to the third Monday of February. Memorial Day, Columbus Day, and Veterans Day were also moved from their traditionally designated dates. (as a result of widespread criticism, 1980, Veterans’ Day was returned to its original November 11 date.)
Washington’s Birthday Transformed to Presidents Day
While Nixon’s order plainly called the newly placed holiday as 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 intended to honor both Washington and Lincoln, as it fell between their birthdays. By the mid-1980s, Washington’s Birthday was known to many Americans as Presidents Day. This shift had solidified in the early 2000s, by when half of the 50 states had changed the holiday’s name to Presidents Day on their calendars.
Washington and Lincoln still remain the two most recognized leaders, but Presidents Day is now popularly 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. For its part, the federal government has held fast to the original incarnation of the holiday as a celebration of the country’s first president. The third Monday in February is still listed on official calendars as Washington’s Birthday.
Presidents Day Celebrations and Traditions
Like Independence Day, Presidents Day is traditionally viewed as a time of patriotic celebration and remembrance, especially during the Great Depression. In 1932, the February 22 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.
In its modern form, Presidents Day is used by many patriotic and historical groups as a date staging celebrations, reenactments, and other events. Although the accomplishments of all the presidents are honored, the focus is often upon the lives of Washington and Lincoln.
Abraham Lincoln was the first Republican U.S. President. Ronald Reagan’s birthday is February 6.