Monday, February 21, 2011

The Origins of Presidents' Day

Honest Abe couldn't catch a break, at least when it came to holidays. This is another vintage postcard from the Russell Hughes collection.

Lincoln's Birthday was never a national holiday. Surprised? If you went to school before 1968, and had the day off, you probably didn't live south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

That is because, during the first century after the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln remained a controversial figure in some states. And that is just one of the interesting factoids about this Presidents' Day Weekend.

George Washington had much better luck. As the commander of the troops that defeated the British, president of the convention that drew up our Constitution, and first President of the United States, his birthday was widely celebrated as a holiday during his own lifetime. In New York, in 1790, the Society of St. Tammany passed this resolution:

"Resolved, unanimously, That the 22d day of February (corresponding with the 11th Feb old Stile) be this day, and ever hereafter, commemorated by this Society as the BIRTH DAY of the illustrious George Washington."

The celebrations didn't stop when Washington finally retired to Mount Vernon--though neither did the confusion about which of his birthdays (Julian or Gregorian) to celebrate.

On February 12, 1708, he notes in his diary: "Went with the family to a Ball in Alexa. given by the Citizen[s] of it & its vicinity in Commemoration of the Anniversary of my birth day."

His step-granddaughter, Nelly Custis, accompanied him and wrote that she found: "... the room crouded [sic], there were twenty five or thirty couples in the first two setts ... we danced until two o'clock." The birthday ball was held on February 12 that year as February 11 fell on a Sunday. It appears Virginia was still eleven days behind New York.

Washington died in 1799 and people across America wore black armbands for a month to mourn his passing. They continued, in the coming years, to celebrate both the 11th (in some places) and the 22nd (in others) as a holiday marking his birth. In 1879 Congress settled the whole thing by setting aside February 22nd as a federal holiday in his honor.

There is no question that Illinois is happy to mark the birthday of this son of Springfield.

Abraham Lincoln, whose birthday was unequivocally February 12, faced more obstacles.

It wasn't until 1874 that a movement began to make Lincoln's birthday a legal holiday. There were many attempts over the years to persuade Congress to take action on it, but they were never successful.

In 1909, as the 100th anniversary of Lincoln's birth approached, Teddy Roosevelt sought to issue a proclamation making February 12, 1909 a legal holiday. But Congress stalled until February 11, so, by the time Roosevelt was able to issue his proclamation, it was too late to have much impact.

After that, many states began to mark February 12 as Lincoln's Birthday Holiday, and ultimately about thirty states did so.

In 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Holiday Act--effective 1971--that moved the Washington's Birthday celebration to the third Monday in February. President Nixon signed a proclamation naming the holiday "Presidents' Day." But that didn't end the controversy.

Many states still call the third Monday in February "Washington's Birthday." Some states call it "Washington-Lincoln Day." Others call it Presidents' Day, along with the federal government.

Since this is America, we're allowed to disagree.

In many cases, it is practically expected of us.

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Anonymous said...

Who does your research? Fire him or her.

Don Meuler said...

Well, that was neither constructive nor coherent, Anonymous. There are a lot of interesting facts here, many of which were previously unknown to me. What are you taking issue with?

Robin Chapman said...

Not everyone is aware that federal holidays are only for employees of the federal government--thus, we have no real "national holidays." Each state gets to decide if those are days off for state workers, and on down the line to school districts and banks. So each state has always had a variety of holidays, not all of which are celebrated in other states. New York, for example, still takes off for Columbus Day, something that isn't done in many other places any more.