Who is being honored on Presidents’ Day?

George Washington - Mt. Rushmore
George Washington - Mt. Rushmore

SAN JOSE, February 17, 2014 — In recent years there has been much confusion over whether the holiday on the third Monday of February is a day to celebrate or remember the birthday of George Washington or a day to honor all of the American presidents.

Unfortunately, calendars do not often help to answer this question, and sometimes contemporary calendars create more confusion than clarification. Some calendars add to the confusion and depict this Monday as “Presidents Day,” while others reference the day as “George Washington’s Birthday.”

So which day is it, and who is really being honored by Americans today?

Contrary to popular perception, there is no such federal holiday as President’s Day. The Congress of the United States debated and signed into law the Uniform Monday Holiday Act on June 28, 1968. It was legislation designed to increase the quantity of three-day weekends for all federal employees. So when the law took effect on January 1, 1971, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act transformed several traditional holidays celebrated throughout the year to conform to all Monday dates. This included such holidays as Memorial Day, Labor Day, and Veteran’s Day, as well as the remembrance of Washington’s Birthday.

The underlying reason that the name confusion persists is that the federal government began to tinker around and messed up a perfectly good birthday celebration for George Washington. Although there had been an early draft of the Congressional calendar shell game that could have made Washington’s Birthday officially into “Presidents’ Day” to honor both Lincoln and Washington, it did not make it through the preliminary committee and the original name was maintained as “Washington’s Birthday.” Thus, the official legislation did not establish a “Presidents’ Day” to combine Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthday parties.

So, if it is recognition of George Washington’s Birthday, why is it so difficult to sort out the simple recognition of Washington’s Birthday as opposed to a combined celebration for Lincoln and Washington, or all U.S. presidents?

Unfortunately, the confusion was compounded because during this time in the early 1970s, the nation’s economy began to tank. Private retailers which had learned that Congress originally intended to change the name of Washington’s Birthday to Presidents’ Day decided to capitalize on the more generic name primarily to stimulate business. Apparently, they had done their marketing homework, and for some odd reason, the retailers discovered that generic “Presidents” sold more products than just the one president who used to be “first in the hearts of his countrymen,” or so it was rationalized at the time.

An enthusiastic marketing endeavor and a local department store promotion generated into a national phenomenon – in today’s terminology – “it went viral!” Ultimately, over a decade, and persisting today, the designation of good old George Washington’s birthday has unofficially been transformed into “Presidents’ Day,” with many Americans believing the latter name to be the legal designation of the federal holiday, and therefore it is essentially “official.”

Yet, while that is not true, it is true that a number of state governments (at least a dozen) since the 1970s have passed legislation to rename George Washington’s birthday observance as “Presidents’ Day or “Washington and Lincoln Day,” or other assorted variations with some sort of theme about presidents.

Thus, it ultimately depends upon where one lives (state governments truly determine the holiday where applicable) whether a citizen actually celebrates “Presidents’ Day,” or “George Washington’s birthday!” Some states officially celebrate both birthdays!

One interesting point to note is that neither Lincoln’s birthday (February 12th), nor Washington’s birthday (February 22nd), will ever fall upon the third Monday of the month of February. That date can only occur between the 15th to the 21st of that month. Interestingly, these dates fall between the birthdays of Lincoln and Washington but never on the exact dates. This guarantees that “Washington’s Birthday” as a federal holiday will always be a misnomer, and unfortunately, allows for no official federal recognition of Mr. Lincoln’s birthday.

Yes, the federal government has never officially designated a day to recognize Abraham Lincoln’s birthday even though there is a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Since the original intent of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act was legislation that was basically to maximize the number of three-day weekends for federal employees, why not designate another day, which could be the second Monday in February, to honor Abraham Lincoln’s birthday? After all, without the Emancipation Proclamation, where would have Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. been placed in history, and one could wonder, if Rev. King had not come upon Lincoln’s foundation, where would Barack Obama be today without Rev. King?

Instead of suffering over the confusion over Presidents’ Day or George Washington’s Birthday, and only one federal Monday holiday in February, why not two? America could continue to call the present holiday George Washington’s Birthday, and Congress could designate another day to honor Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. However, if one considers it carefully, it could get politically nasty. If Congress is going to honor Lincoln, a Republican, the Democrats may insist on an equitable arrangement to honor a Democrat president – like F.D.R. or John Kennedy, or maybe both. After all, Mr. Lincoln already got his face sculpted into Mt. Rushmore. On second thought, maybe with the nature of Congress these days, it is better to leave well enough alone.

Anyway, it may not fundamentally matter much because most Americans seem to believe 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. Yet, including the likes of Millard Fillmore, Chester Arthur, or Grover Cleveland in such a legislative brainstorm, may seem way too much of a stretch. No matter, someone long ago said that it’s the thought that counts, and what the American people believe is what actually counts – right?

Well, while all this may be important to some Americans, it is not important to many (maybe a majority) and what does that really reveal about what may be on the minds of the general public at this point in time? This is obviously just one of the rhetorical questions. Another one related to it is what might that say about the importance of the nation’s history to the general public? A serious and sad 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.

America was founded on purpose by men and women with a vision of something better than what the world had experienced to the time of the nation’s birth – a vision of freedom. Whether one celebrates Washington’s Birthday to honor the Father of the Country, or Presidents’ Day to honor Washington and also Lincoln, the president who held together the government “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” or a combination of days to honor such presidents, it is important to remember the original vision of freedom, and how it originated, and how the vision was substantiated by 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 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.