President’s Day – Basic Facts & Information

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George Washington's Peale Portrait

Learn the basic history of President’s Day, why it is more correct to call it Washington’s Birthday, and interesting information about America’s first president.

The 45th Congress first recognized George Washington’s birthday, February 22, as a federal holiday in 1879, but that holiday has seen many changes, including the date and an unofficial name change. Learn background information about George Washington and details about how this holiday has changed over the years.

George Washington – America’s First President

It is interesting to note that George Washington was born in 1731. At that time the Julian calendar was in use, which placed Washington’s birthday on February 11. However, the Gregorian calendar was later adopted by Britian and its colonies, which placed Washington’s official birth on February 22, 1732. This six foot two and a half inch tall leader was a farmer and surveyor. His home in Virginia was called Mount Vernon, and he married a widow named Martha Dandridge Custis.

The Electoral College unanimously elected George Washington, “Father of Our Country,” to the office of President of the United States. He took his oath of office on April 30, 1789 and served two terms to retire from office in 1797. Washington served as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army and lead troops in many grueling battles from July 3, 1775 until Corwallis’s surrender in 1781 in Yorktown.

Kenneth C. Davis’s 2002 book Don’t Know Much About the Presidents mentions that many ideas were offered before selecting Mr. President as a suitable title for America’s first president, such as:

  • His Elective Majesty
  • His Elective Highness
  • Your Mightiness
  • His Highness the President of the United States
  • Protector of the Rights of the Same

George Washington’s image has appeared in a wide variety of places, such as:

  • America’s one dollar bill and a one dollar coin
  • Mount Rushmore
  • Washington Monument
  • Stamps

Many universities and towns have chosen to honor George Washington’s name as well.

The United States’ first president was posthumously awarded the honor of six-star General of the Armies in 1976, well after his death. George Washington died on December 14, 1799, which was preceeded by a throat infection. America mourned for months after his death.

How Did Washington’s Birthday Become Presidents’ Day?

Many people decided to observe Washington’s birthday long before it became an official federal holiday, but on January 31, 1879, President Rutherford B. Hayes signed into law that Washington’s birthday (February 22) would be added to the list of federal holidays celebrated by District federal employees. This decision was extended to federal workers in the thirty-eight states in 1885.

In 1968, the 90th Congress decided to create more uniform federal holidays by moving several to Mondays, creating three-day weekends that might benefit American families by allowing more time together while supporting businesses such as tourism. The idea was surrounded by much debate and controversy and affected several federal holidays, including Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day. Other holidays, such as Christmas, New Year’s Day, and July 4 were exempt from this tweaking.

The new ruling changed the national celebration of Washington’s birthday to the third Monday in February beginning in 1971, which ironically would never fall on February 22 because the holiday would always fall on dates on or between February 15 and February 21. This new date was close to Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on February 12, and some thought of honoring both famous presidents.

The idea of changing the holiday to President’s Day was briefly considered, but that idea was not legally passed on several arguments such as:

  • Not all Presidents have been held with such high esteem as that of George Washington.
  • Voters might not want to celebrate Presidents of the opposite political party.
  • Some citizens might not want to honor all Presidents.

Many feared that this change in date would lead to the erosion of knowledge of American history. Perhaps Americans would no longer know or care when George Washington was born. People in the United States might even come to see George Washington’s federally observed birthday to be merely a day off work or school when the banks are closed and the mail is not delivered by the U.S. Postal Service.

Some states and many advertisers began to call the holiday by a new name to honor all Presidents, but neither Congress nor the President has changed the federal holiday name. This unofficial holiday has been spelled several different ways, including:

  • President’s Day
  • Presidents’ Day
  • Presidents Day

Some advertisers and merchants celebrate all American Presidents:

  • on February 22
  • from February 12 (Lincoln’s birthday) until February 22 (Washington’s birthday)
  • throughout the month of February

Many calendars and other media list Presidents Day on February 22 instead of Washington’s observed birthday.

Washington’s Birthday or Presidents Day?

The United States government recognizes the third Monday of February as a day to commemorate the first American President, George Washington, whose birthday was February 22. With the change in date, many in the media began to promote the dual birthdays of Washington and Lincoln or to extend the honor to all American Presidents with a resulting unofficial name change to Presidents Day.

Those changes came with much argument. While some felt that three day weekends would enable families more time to celebrate together, others believed that America’s historical knowledge would begin to fail. The U.S. government, however, still observes George Washington’s birthday on the third Monday of February.

Sources:

  1. Arbelbide, C. L. online article “By George, It IS Washington’s Birthday” on NationalArchives.gov
  2. “George Washington’s Birthday” on NationalArchives.gov
  3. “George Washington” on WhiteHouse.gov