Today is the third Monday of February, and it’s a national holiday. Some choose to call it Washington’s birthday, but others, especially retailers, prefer the moniker Presidents Day. Many think it’s supposed to be “Presidents’ Day.” Historical events and the fickle nature of Americans caused the confusion. Now, before you get all bent out of shape at the accusation “fickle,” let’s take a short (really short because this writer has no dog in the race) gander at some history. We’ll go way, way back, all the way to 1732.
On February 22, George Washington was born. No doubt his parents wanted good and wonderful things for him, but they could not have foreseen that he would become the President of the United States of America. Heck, the U.S. didn’t exist as an entity when Washington entered the world. I’ll bet they didn’t even give him a toy musket for his birthday or worry that he’d shoot his eye out if he got one!
In the brief history, the next date that counts is 4 July 1776. I’ll bet you all know that epoch and why it matters so much. Yep. That is the day the Second Continental Congress decided that this country should break free from England and her taxes. The Declaration of Independence was actually written two days earlier, but all the t’s were crossed, i’s dotted, and signatures affixed on July 4, so that’s the day we celebrate.
Washington died in 1799, and the entire country grieved. It was decided, by the power of Congress or the People, that his birthday should become a day of remembrance. In 1879, that honoring became a real holiday through the stroke of President Rutherford B. Hayes’ pen, but only the District of Columbia got the benefit of the law. Finally, the entire country was extended the same pleasure in 1885.
Of course, you’d have to have lived your entire life under a rock not to know that good old George Washington was elected in the first presidential race that soon followed. But this story isn’t all about Washington. There is at least one more president important enough to mention by name: Abraham Lincoln. That tall, bearded icon entered the world on 12 February 1809. You all know that he wanted to unite the North and South and that he wrote the Gettysburg Address, and you also know we’ve never (really) stopped arguing since the first president. But that’s another story altogether. Lincoln is certainly important enough to celebrate.
Now we come around to some more disagreements. First of all, not every state thought we should add Lincoln’s day to the official holidays. Though it was observed in some states, it never became a national holiday. Still, school children already knew Lincoln’s birthday, and many people thought it should get stronger recognition. Nevertheless, Congress did nothing to add Lincoln’s birthday to the national roster of holidays.
What Congress did do was listen to labor unions, voices in the private sector, and employers who thought that moving holidays to Mondays and creating some three-day weekends would reduce employee absenteeism. Retailers loved the idea, knowing they could capitalize on it and create targeted sales when people were free to shop. Many suggested that Washington’s birthday be renamed Presidents’ Day to honor both Washington and Lincoln. Congress ignored that request, too. Calling it the Uniform Monday Holiday Bill, Congress passed the measure in 1968, and in 1971, it took effect.
The population, though, preferred Presidents’ Day, and most people see it as an opportunity to honor all men who have served in the White House as the nation’s top executive. In truth, many of us see it as a day to shop. Not all employers add it to the official holidays they honor.
So, what are you doing today? Are you honoring Washington and Lincoln and other presidents? Are you shopping? Or are you, like me, at your desk working? No matter what you’re doing, at least you know why you don’t get any mail today. Some people are off celebrating our presidents.