The Nation's Pulse

The Day That Isn’t

Happy Washington's Birthday, America.

By 2.16.11

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Next Monday, February 21, will be the Washington's Birthday Holiday. That is what it's been ever since an Act of Congress created it in 1880 to honor the nation's first president. Forty years ago, however, it metamorphosed into "Presidents' Day." How did this happen?

Beginning in 1951 a fellow named Harold Stonebridge Fischer created the Presidents' Day National Committee. He became its executive director. Over the next two decades he lobbied tirelessly to have such a day become law. He favored March 4, the original presidential inauguration day, as the date for his creation. Alas for Harold, it never happened, although it gave him twenty years of steady employment.

The bill stalled in the Senate Judiciary committee because its members were worried that a new holiday squeezed in on the heels of Lincoln's and Washington's birthdays would be too costly to the government.  Nevertheless, during the years of the lobbying, a majority of state governors officially proclaimed March 4 as Presidents' Day. Not much came of this, however, because it wasn't a holiday.

Up through 1970 the Washington's Birthday Holiday was celebrated on the first president's birthday, February 22, regardless of the day of the week on which it fell.  That year, Congress began to debate the relative virtue of moving several stand-alone holidays to nearby Mondays. Members reasoned it would be less disruptive for the government workforce, would cut down on overtime and would be equally beneficial to business workforces. It also promised the additional benefits of increased retail sales and happier citizens who would enjoy three-day weekends. It passed.

Thus, on January 1, 1971, the new Uniform Monday Holiday Act shifted Washington's Birthday Holiday from his actual birthday to the third Monday in February. (Several other holidays also shifted to Mondays.)  The birthday kept its original name and still does.

Before long to some, "Washington's Birthday" seemed like an odd name for a holiday that always fell on the same Monday, somewhere between Lincoln's and Washington's birthdays.

Lincoln aficionados, of course, probably welcomed the confusion, for now the new dating could be made to honor both great presidents.

Some think that the Washington's Birthday Holiday was re-named "Presidents' Day" by an executive order from then-President Richard Nixon. Now, Nixon can be blamed for many things, but "Presidents' Day" is not one of them. There was no executive order. 

Instead, we can pin it on the not-so-humble used car and mattress salesmen of America. Here was a three-day holiday from out of the blue -- what a glorious time to hold mammoth sales -- just when everyone was tired of winter and wanted to get out of the house. Soon they began proclaiming "Presidents' Day" sales and we've had them ever since.

Then the news media, always nosey but rarely curious, swallowed Presidents' Day whole and thus the entire nation seemed to think it was the writ of the land. 

For decades, before Washington's name was crowded off what is still officially his holiday, it gave us a day to think about his accomplishments: winning the war of independence; holding together a fragile young republic. Now, instead we have a day that supposedly honors all presidents, but when one honors all, one honors none. To most people, it is just another three-holiday, except for mattress and used car salesmen, for whom it is three days of nirvana.

Mr. Hannaford is a former member of the Mount Vernon Advisory Committee.

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About the Author
Peter Hannaford was closely associated with the late President Reagan for a number of years. He is a member of the board of the Committee on the Present Danger. His latest book is “Presidential Retreats.”