The little-known history of Presidents’ Day
Have you ever wondered why Presidents' Day is celebrated on the third Monday of February? What about its name: Is the holiday celebrating all presidents or just George Washington's birthday?
In fact, Presidents' Day is still officially referred to as "Washington's Birthday" by the federal government. This was the holiday's intended purpose; after Washington's death in 1799, people turned his birthday, February 22, into a day of remembrance. It was a fitting tribute for the man recognized as the most important figure in American history.
The holiday wasn't officially recognized by the federal government until the late 1800's. In the 1870s, Senator Steven Wallace Dorsey of Arkansas proposed the idea, and President Rutherford B. Hayes signed the holiday into law in 1879.
At this time, the holiday was still celebrated on Washington's official birthday. It wasn't until the late 1960s that the date changed.
Giving Americans more three-day weekends
In the 1960s, Congress recognized a problem plaguing U.S. businesses and workers. Because many federal holidays fell on specific dates, they days they were celebrated shifted from year to year. One holiday could fall on a Tuesday one year and a Friday the next. As such, American workers weren't consistent with their time off, and absenteeism became an issue.
To solve the problem, Congress proposed the Uniform Holiday Act. The law would shift several federal holidays from specific dates to specific Mondays, creating more three-day weekends for workers. The reasoning was that having more consistency among federal holidays between the years would reduce the number of employees missing work.
President Richard Nixon signed an executive order in 1971 making the Uniform Holiday Act permanent, officially shifting Washington's Birthday to the third Monday in February. However, this put it close to the birthday of another significant president: Abraham Lincoln. Additionally, another U.S. president had a birthday in February: William Henry Harrison. This confused the public, who were no longer sure if the holiday celebrated one president or many. In fact, some members of Congress wanted the day to act as a combination of Washington's and Lincoln's birthdays.
Although the federal name never changed, people began referring to Washington's Birthday as Presidents' Day, and most people think of it as a celebration of all of the nation's presidents.
The importance of America's first commander in chief
Although most people picture extended weekends and retail sales when discussing Presidents Day, the holiday is primarily about America's first commander in chief. The fact that President Washington has a holiday devoted to him and him alone is nothing short of significant. In fact, he is one of only two people to have a federally recognized holiday in his honor. The second is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Presidents' Day celebrates the nation's first commander-in-chief, President Washington. Thanks to his leadership during the American Revolution, the U.S. military was able to successfully defeat the British empire, allowing the nation to declare independence.
Washington's devotion to the nation and the military started long before his presidential appointment. In fact, he was first appointed as commander in chief in 1775 when he lead the Continental Army, more than a decade before he became president.
Washington left quite a legacy with the U.S. military. He brought attention to the causes that sustain the nation's servicemembers to this day: freedom and liberty.
As such, not only should we recognize President Washington during this holiday, but we should also honor the servicemembers who carry out his legacy.