HistoryExplainer

Presidents' Day technically only celebrates one president

What started as—and legally remains—a celebration of George Washington has transformed into something more.

Photograph by Keystone, Getty
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On February 22, 1952, members of the Madison Square Boys' Club re-enact George Washington’s famous crossing of the Delaware to celebrate the former president’s birthday. Over the years, this national holiday has morphed both in terms of the date it's celebrated and its meaning in the national consciousness.

Photograph by Keystone, Getty
HistoryExplainer

Presidents' Day technically only celebrates one president

What started as—and legally remains—a celebration of George Washington has transformed into something more.

Most American calendars mark the third Monday in February as Presidents' Day. Retailers use the observance to advertise deep discounts over the long weekend. But this holiday doesn’t commemorate all presidents. It's not even legally called Presidents’ Day. U.S. law designates this holiday "Washington’s Birthday" in honor of the nation’s first president, George Washington. And, contrary to its formal declaration more than 50 years ago, the whole thing is still a bit of a sore subject.

America has been celebrating the birth of its first president for nearly 200 years. Washington was born on February 11, 1731 (a date that was later adjusted to February 22, 1732, with the adoption of the Gregorian calendar). The centennial of his birth was celebrated across the country and, in later years, Congress began commemorating his birth with the reading of his Farewell Address. In 1879, Washington’s birthday was added to the list of federal holidays.

But by the late 1960s, frustration had grown with the system that often plunked national holidays directly in the middle of the work week. In a U.S. Chamber of Commerce opinion poll, 85 percent of people surveyed supported the switch to three-day weekends. And newspapers around the country argued that commemorating historic dates on the actual day they occurred interrupted both commerce and vacation-planning.

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A portrait of George Washington painted by Rembrandt Peale in 1854.

Lawmakers drafted the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which would move the observance of holidays to Monday. Naturally, some holidays were exempt, as no one dared touch the observance of Christmas, New Year’s, Independence Day, and Thanksgiving. But Washington’s birthday—along with Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and the newly added Columbus Day—was slated to be moved from its actual date to the third weekend in February. (Learn about the controversy that later moved Veterans Day back to its original date.)

Then a new challenge arose during debate over the legislation. In its new date, Washington’s birthday would take place between his birthday and that of another beloved U.S. president: Abraham Lincoln. Despite being one of the most prominent figures in American history, Lincoln had never had a national celebration in his name. In fact, previous efforts to make his February 12 birthday a national holiday had failed.

This was not lost on U.S. Representative Robert McClory, who hailed from Lincoln’s home state of Illinois. He pushed to rename the holiday Presidents’ Day, arguing that Washington’s true birthday had become a matter of “conjecture” after the switch to the Gregorian calendar.

McClory’s colleagues disagreed. According to Prologue magazine, some representatives argued passionately in favor of observing Washington’s birthday exactly as it had been since 1832. One warned, "If we do this, 10 years from now our schoolchildren will not know or care when George Washington was born. They will know that in the middle of February they will have a 3-day weekend for some reason. This will come."

On June 27, 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act with a compromise: Washington’s birthday would remain a federal holiday yet move to the third Monday in February as proposed.

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Fourth graders in Clear Lake, South Dakota, wear wigs resembling George Washington’s to celebrate his birthday in 1916.

It was a blow to Lincoln supporters, though, who had hoped the date change would come with the long-awaited recognition.

Yet Lincoln may have had the last laugh. While the federal government still recognizes the third weekend in February as Washington’s birthday, the nation went its own way: Advertisers seized on the idea of a weekend to celebrate all presidents and so have some states, like Texas, which dropped its celebration of Washington in favor of Presidents’ Day. Just as was predicted, many Americans associate this particular three-day weekend with both presidents.

However, there are still many who would like to see these presidents singled out. Lincoln supporters continue to lament the lack of official recognition, while Mount Vernon, George Washington’s Virginia estate, implores visitors to contact their congressional representatives about bringing back the original February 22 holiday so as not to let Washington’s "character and accomplishments … be muddled into a holiday as vague as ‘Presidents’ Day.'"

That said, Mount Vernon itself even hosts Presidents’ Day celebrations. It’s hard to fight a historical trend.

Why Is This Field Full of Huge Presidents?

In this quirky short film by Adam Roffman, meet the unlikely hero working to preserve 43 enormous busts of former U.S. presidents. Watching the 20-foot tall statues crumble in his field, Howard Hankins dreams of one day restoring them to their former glory. The Short Film Showcase spotlights exceptional short videos created by filmmakers from around the web and selected by National Geographic editors. The filmmakers created the content presented, and the opinions expressed are their own, not those of National Geographic Partners.