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Presidents’ Day is a day to honor all of America’s Chief Executives

Viewed today as a time of patriotic celebration and remembrance, “Presidents’ Day” began in 1800. Following the death of George Washington on December 14, 1799, his birthday was set aside as a perennial day of rememberance. Considered at the time to be the most important figure of American history, the centennial rememberance of his birth in 1832, and the groundbreaking of the Washington Monument in 1848, became days of national celebration.

Seal of the US President

In the late 1870s, Senator Steven Wallace Dorsey of Arkansas began the push to make Washington’s birthday a federal holiday. President Rutherford B. Hayes signed the bill into law in 1879 which created the “George Washington’s Birthday” holiday. Originally celebrated only by the governmental offices in Washington, D.C., it later expanded in 1885 to include all federal offices.

The holiday was celebrated on Washington’s actual birthday, February 22nd, and joined four other nationally recognized bank holidays – Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, Independence Day and Thanksgiving. At the time, it was the only holiday to celebrate the life of an individual American. In 1983, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day became the second.

During the late 1960’s, Representative Robert McClory of Illinois championed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act in an effort to move a number of federal holidays from their specific dates of celebration to predetermined Mondays throughout the year. The Act included a provision which would combine the celebrations of both Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthday, serving to offer equal recognition to two of America’s most famous statesmen. Following the creation of this law, a third outstanding February-born individual became President – Ronald Wilson Reagan (February 6).

[William Henry Harrison, America’s 9th President, was also born in February (9th). Holding the title of the oldest president to take office prior to Ronald Reagan, Harrison was the first president to die in office, succumbing to pneumonia on his 32nd day. His is the shortest tenure in presidential history.]

The bill stipulated Washington’s Birthday would be observed on the third Monday of February rather than on the 22nd; Memorial Day was moved to the last Monday of May rather than the 30th and Veterans Day would now be observed on the fourth Monday of October as opposed to November 11th.

President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act into law on June 28, 1968. Johnson stated, “The bill that we sign today will help Americans to enjoy more fully the country that is their magnificent heritage. It will also aid the work of Government and bring new efficiency to our economy. . .” The reason for the law was to allow a larger number of three-day weekends for federal employees.

The new holidays began on January 1, 1971, offering time for state legislatures, local governments and private employers to adjust their schedules. A widespread outcry from veterans and military groups subsequently returned the celebration of Veterans Day to November 11th in 1978, designed to perpetuate the commemoration of “. . . the 11th hour, on the 11th day of the 11th month…” when the guns fell silent along the Western Front as Germany and the Allies observed the Armistice, ending World War I.

In 1951, an attempt was made by Harold Stonebridge Fischer of Compton, California to create a Presidents’ Day holiday. He created the Presidents’ Day National Committee and served as its director for 20 years, seeking to set aside a day to honor, not a particular man, but the office of the Presidency itself. March 4th was originally chosen, due to the fact that was the day on which George Washington took his first oath of office. The Senate Judiciary Committee, however, stalled the selection, believing it fell too closely to Washington and Lincoln’s birthdays. As word was spread of this idea, the governors in a majority of states spoke out and declared March 4th as Presidents’ Day in their states.

Various states also use the term “Presidents’ Day” in different ways.

* Alabama sets aside February’s third Monday to commemorate the birthdays of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson (even though Jefferson’s birthday is actually in April).

* Connecticut, Illinois and Missouri - celebrate Washington’s Birthday as a federal holiday and Abraham Lincoln’s birthday as a state holiday, regardless of the day of the week February 12th falls on.

* Florida - Eustis began a “George Fest” celebration in 1902 which continues today.

* Massachusetts - celebrates “Washington’s Birthday” on the Federal holiday, and also has a “Presidents’ Day” proclamation read by the governor each year on May 29th, President John F. Kennedy’s birthday. On this day, the birthdays of all presidents born in Massachusetts - John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Calvin Coolidge and Kennedy - are honored.

* New Mexico delays their celebration of Presidents’ Day until November, choosing to celebrate it the day after Thanksgiving as a paid holiday for state government employees.

* Virginia - Washington’s home state celebrates the holiday as “George Washington Day.” Alexandria, Washington’s hometown, hosts a month-long tribute. Mount Vernon throws an extended birthday party, beginning on the federal holiday weekend and continuing through February 22nd. The George Washington Birthplace national Monument in Westmoreland County does the same.

* A number of school districts who used to celebrate both Lincoln and Washington’s birthdays now close for a week, beginning with the Monday holiday to allow their students the opportunity of enjoying a “mid-winter recess”. New York City’s school district began this observance in the 1990s.

During the time the Uniform Monday Holiday Act was in the drafting stages, the “Washington’s Birthday” holiday was renamed “Presidents’ Day” in an effort to honor both Lincoln and Washington; however, it failed in committee and when signed into law on June 28, 1968, the holiday bore the name “Washington’s Birthday”.

Another push for “Presidents’ Day” was begun in the mid-1980s by a number of advertisers. Prior to that, Presidents’ Day was accorded the same corporate practice of closing offered to Memorial Day and Christmas Day. The new efforts revealed more businesses remaining open and the holiday has now become a focused sale day for such merchants as car dealerships and electronics stores. A review of the debate preceding the Uniform Monday Holiday Bill becoming law reveals moving of federal holidays to Monday was an effort to help promote business.

Originally, President Washington’s birthday was set aside as a federal holiday to honor the man fondly known as “The Father of his Country”. There are those who say the notoriety directed towards George Washington is a bit overdone, but if a serious study is made of the man and the sacrifices he put forth in an effort to see the United States of America become a self-sustaining and strong nation, one has to wonder if he should not be offered more.

As the Electoral College’s unanimous choice to be the first President, Washington set an outstanding example for future officeholders to emulate. He also instituted the Badge of Merit, now known as the Purple Heart, in an effort to recognize the “common soldier” (enlisted troop) wounded in battle. In 2007, America celebrated Washington’s 275th birthday and the 75th anniversary of the Purple Heart medal’s rebirth.

Though Washington and Lincoln continue to remain the two most recognized American leaders, today’s Presidents’ Day patriotic celebrations serve to honor all US presidents – past and present.

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