#1 The Meaning Behind Washington’s Birthday: Honoring Lincoln and Washington

The Origins of Presidents Day

It is impossible for Presidents Day to occur on George Washington’s birthday, as depicted in this engraving by Nathaniel Currier. (Photo credit: MPI/Getty Images)

Presidents Day is a US holiday celebrated annually on the third Monday of February. This holiday was established in 1879 as Washington’s Birthday to honor the first US president. It was commemorated on Washington’s Feb. 22 birthday until 1971, when it was moved to give federal workers another three-day weekend. However, Section 6103 (a) of Title 5 of the United States Code, which classifies federal holidays, still lists the third Monday of the month as “Washington’s Birthday.”

Lincoln’s birthday (Feb. 12, 1809) was never a federal holiday, but several states continue to observe it as a paid holiday. After Lincoln’s death in 1865, some sought to make his birthday a holiday, but the effort failed. The first federal holiday to honor a single person’s birth date, Washington’s Birthday was followed by Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which was signed into law in 1982.

In June 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which established the observance of Washington’s Birthday on the third Monday of February, resulting in more three-day holidays for federal employees. This Act moved Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and Columbus Day to Mondays. It also resulted in Washington’s Birthday never being celebrated on his actual birthday, since the law took effect in 1971.

The Uniform Monday Holiday Act and the Birth of Presidents Day

Within the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, Illinois Sen. Robert McClory suggested the renaming of the holiday to Presidents Day, to also celebrate Lincoln’s birthday. However, that suggestion was dropped from the proposal. Advertisers latched onto Presidents Day as another date for sales and promotions, inflicting scores of fake Georges and Abes on us in their commercials.

Although federal employees have the day as a holiday, the law did not officially change the third Monday of February to Presidents Day, so it remains Washington’s Birthday. For instance, the National Weather Service and the Federal Reserve System continue to call the date Washington’s Birthday.

“It’s become more of a shopping day and a break in the calendar. Are we supposed to be honoring all the presidents that day? If so, how are we doing that?” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian and professor at Rice University in Houston. “If it was Presidents Day in all the schools in the country and (teachers and students) were really looking at the executive branch, there might be something useful, but as it is now, it’s more about a worker holiday than it is a day of intellectual reflection.”

Lincoln’s Birthday and the Legacy of the Civil War President

Brinkley would prefer Presidents Day have a name attached to it. “Once Martin Luther King Jr. Day became a national holiday, that became a day of intense reflection on our great civil rights icon,” he said. Lincoln deserves a more prominent date because of his guiding the country through the Civil War and issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, Brinkley said. “In a multicultural America, honing in on Lincoln probably is more fruitful than seeing if people can name the presidents in order,” he said.

The Debate Over How to Celebrate Presidents Day

Today, Presidents Day is better known as a national day of bargains on cars, mattresses, appliances, televisions and more. Microsoft Outlook lists Lincoln’s Birthday (Feb. 12), but not Washington’s Birthday (Feb. 22) or Presidents Day (Feb. 20). Google Calendar lists just Presidents Day.

Several schools across the US still observe Presidents Day by giving their students days off, but Brinkley believes that if Presidents Day was made a day of intellectual reflection, it would be more useful. “If it was Presidents Day in all the schools in the country and (teachers and students) were really looking at the executive branch, there might be something useful,” he said.

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