Sidestepping confusion over President’s Day

Contrary to popular perception, the federal holiday in the United States known as President’s Day is not actually a combined celebration of George Washington’s and Abraham Lincoln’s birthday or a celebration for all of the U.S. presidents.

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Whose birthday are we celebrating anyway?(wikipedia)

SAN JOSE, February 20, 2017 – Contrary to popular perception, the federal holiday in the United States known as President’s Day is not actually a combined celebration of George Washington’s and Abraham Lincoln’s birthday or a celebration for all of the U.S. presidents. To many, President’s Day is a source of confusion rather than a source of deeper understanding. President’s Day is not only a federal holiday, it has also been adopted by various state governments but for various purposes. And, although they are all observed on the third Monday each February, they do not all celebrate the same presidents.

The underlying reason for confusion regarding President’s Day is that the federal government began to tinker with a perfectly good birthday celebration for the Father of our Country, which dated back to 1879. George Washington’s Birthday was celebrated in a public way even while he was president, but it only became an official holiday by the Congressional Act of 1879 which created a federal day to specifically celebrate Washington’s Birthday for  the government workers in the District of Columbia. Then on February 21, 1885, President Chester Arthur signed a congressional bill which expanded the earlier law, and the legislation essentially transformed Washington’s birthday into a legitimate federal holiday, providing government holiday benefits to all federal employees.

This holiday in honor of Washington’s birthday was the first day to be designated a federal holiday to honor any individual American citizen. However in the 1960s, Congress authorized another law relating to the remembrance of Washington’s birthday. On June 28, 1968, the Congress signed into law the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. It was legislation designed to increase the quantity of three-day weekends for all federal employees. This law took effect  on January 1, 1971, and it transformed several traditional holidays celebrated throughout the year to conform to all Monday dates.

That is when the confusion originated.  


Most of the confusion has to do with which presidents are really being honored by American citizens today. Technically, the name of the holiday as President’s Day is more of a misnomer, and it should have been corrected in the legislation. Nevertheless, if one understands English grammar and proper punctuation, the name actually helps clarify which president(s) would be honored on such a holiday. In the late 1960s, when playing the Congressional calendar shell game that could have made Washington’s Birthday into “Presidents’ Day” (note an apostrophe after presidents – indicating possessive plural) in order to combine Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthday parties, but the bill did not make it through the preliminary committee, and the original name was retained as “Washington’s Birthday.”

Unfortunately, such confusion was compounded  when state governments decided to pursue their precious state’s rights with regard to “Presidents’ Day.” Since the early or mid-1970s, several state governments (at least a dozen) have passed legislation to rename the George Washington’s birthday observance as “Presidents’ Day or “Washington and Lincoln Day,” or other assorted variations with some sort of theme about presidents. Such efforts were made because businesses in many states were suffering in the 1970s as the nation’s economy was floundering. Private retailers in that time had learned the intentions of Congress to change ad with changing the name of Washington’s Birthday to Presidents/s’/’s Day, and this set in motion plans to revive business.

Retail establishments pivoted off of the ideas that had been debated in Congress, and it was considered that the Washington’s Birthday sales could be improved if they created a more generic name as a new gimmick to stimulate business. The retailers did their marketing homework, and discovered that for some unknown reason, the generic “Presidents’ Day” sales events generated greater revenue than the sales focused only upon George Washington’s birthday. Energized by such financial success, state political figures increasingly took up the local cause to create a holiday for favorite presidents. By now, it ultimately depends upon where one lives (state governments truly determine the holiday – where applicable).

Today, where a citizen resides actually determines whether one celebrates “Presidents’ Day” or “George Washington’s birthday!” Some states officially celebrate both birthdays! But, some of the southern states would never be caught honoring President Lincoln because of the basic animosity toward Lincoln over the eradication of slavery. And unfortunately, coupled with states’ rejection of President Lincoln, he also does not get any official federal recognition of his birthday. And in the midst of the confusion over Washington’s birthday, both of these great presidents get lost in the the Congressional confusion.  And, if one does not truly know what the celebration is about, can such a special day be truly appreciated?

Additionally, it may not fundamentally matter much because most Americans seem to embrace the belief that there is an actual federal holiday legally established to honor the   two most famous presidents born in the month of February: Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. Including the likes of Millard Fillmore, Chester Arthur, or Grover Cleveland in such a legislative brainstorm may seem way too much of a stretch. Yet, a serious and tragic irony is that if a nation’s people forgets its great leaders and notable men or women of the past, that nation could lose its connection to its roots and its foundation for existence.

No matter – someone long ago said that it’s the thought that counts, and what the American people think is what truly counts in more ways than one. Hopefully, more and more Americans can begin to think about America and to remember the original vision of freedom, and how it originated, and how the vision was substantiated through serious commitment and courageous action. It is important to honor any presidents who honored the original vision of freedom, and how they honored such a vision by their courageous actions at the risk of their lives. It is important to remember.

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Dennis Jamison
Dennis Jamison reinvented his life after working for a multi-billion dollar division of Johnson & Johnson for several years. Now semi-retired, he is an adjunct faculty member at West Valley College in California. He currently writes a column on US history and one on American freedom for the Communities Digital News, as well as writing for other online publications. During the 2016 presidential primaries, he worked as the leader of a network of writers, bloggers, and editors who promoted the candidacy of Dr. Ben Carson. He founded the “We the People” Network of writers and the Citizen Sentinels Project to pro-actively promote the values and principles established at the founding of the United States, and to discover and support more morally centered citizen-candidates who sincerely seek election as public servants, not politicians.