Happy Presidents Day! A History Lesson About the Holiday

On Monday, Americans will be enjoying a day off for Presidents Day. Here's a look at the history of the holiday and who we are really celebrating.
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George Washington

Portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart. 

There seems to be some confusion over the federal holiday for George Washington’s birthday and its common name, Presidents Day. Let’s start with the name. Is it President's Day or Presidents' Day, or is it Presidents Day? Retailers use all three renditions to announce the sales holiday held on the third Monday in February. If you want to commemorate the birthday of George Washington, it would be President’s Day. If you want to honor more than one president, it would be Presidents’ Day. If, however, you want to commemorate anyone who’s a president, it would be Presidents Day, a day for presidents. Ok, that was confusing! 

At this point, it’s important to point out that Washington is only one of three individuals and one of only two Americans who have official U.S. holidays commemorating their birthdays. But more on that later. 

Ok, so let’s put Presidents Day aside for a minute and discuss Washington’s birthday. Grade school history books tell us he was born on February 22, 1732. But that’s not right. Washington was actually born on February 11, 1731. However, during his lifetime, Great Britain and its colonies switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, catching up with the rest of Europe which made the switch in 1582. As a result, people born before 1752 had to add 11 days to their birth dates. Those individuals born between January 1 and March 25, as Washington was, also had to add a year to be in sync with the new calendar. 

Ok, we got George’s birth date settled. So how did Washington's birthday become a holiday? A little background history. . .

Celebrating George Washington’s birthday began in 1800, one year after his death. Washington was considered near-god-like at the time for winning the Revolutionary War and serving as the first president of the United States. In the following years, a few states began celebrating February 22 as Washington’s birthday. More states joined in during his birth centennial in 1832 and with the start of construction on the Washington Monument in 1848. 

By 1885, Congress made February 22 a national holiday, designated as “Washington’s Birthday,” and a paid day off for all federal employees. During the 20th century, the day was celebrated in patriotic ceremonies much like the Fourth of July or Veterans’ Day, especially in times of national strife. Then, in 1971, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act (UMHA) was enacted to create three-day holiday weekends for workers. Celebrating Washington’s birthday was moved to the third Monday in February and the holiday is officially known as "Washington’s Birthday.” There was an attempt to change the name from Washington’s Birthday to Presidents’ Day but this was thwarted by Virginia’s Congressional representatives who wanted to preserve the holiday for its favorite son, George Washington. 

Still, many people refer to Washington’s Birthday as “Presidents’ Day.” Part of the reason for this is because Abraham Lincoln’s birthday is also in February (February 12). But if we’re honoring presidents born in February, we have four to commemorate: George Washington, William Henry Harrison, Abraham Lincoln, and Ronald Reagan. Why don’t we honor all four presidents on the official holiday? Well, Harrison served the shortest term of any president, exactly one month. He died due to complications from typhoid fever. Not much of a legacy to honor. Ronald Reagan served as president after the holiday was established in 1971. Another problem with celebrating the birthdays of all four presidents on the holiday is that UMHA guaranteed that Presidents’ Day would never fall on any of the presidents’ birthdays, including Washington’s. 

Abraham Lincoln portrait, 1863

Abraham Lincoln, pictured here in 1863, was also born in February on the 12th. Other presidents born in the same month as Washington include William Henry Harrison (February 9th) and Ronald Reagan (February 6th).

So, it’s settled. The third Monday in February is officially Washington’s Birthday and President’s Day or Presidents’ Day or Presidents Day is just a popular term used to commemorate other presidents and sell products. 

So who are the three individuals who have official U.S. holidays commemorating their birthdays? Christopher Columbus, George Washington, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Interestingly enough, there is a connection between them. Christopher Columbus’s voyages to the western hemisphere initiated a massive migration of people and products known as the Columbian Exchange. This migration also brought slaves. George Washington had once owned over 300 slaves, but left instructions to have them freed in his will. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was descended from slaves and went on to be one of the nation’s greatest civil rights heroes.