On Monday America will celebrate a day that isn’t. Millions of desk and wall calendars will show the third Monday of February as “Presidents’ Day,” but there is no such thing and thereby hangs a tale.
Sixty-one years ago, in 1951, a Californian named Harold Stonebridge Fischer formed the President’s Day National Committee with the intention of creating a holiday that would honor the office of the presidency, but no particular president. He found some like-minded people to fill out his committee and push the idea and he must have acquired some financial donors, for he was executive director of the committee for the next two decades.
He lobbied Congress, proposing March 4, the original Inauguration Day, as the date for “Presidents’ Day,” but the bill to make it happen became stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Several members were concerned that adding a third holiday to celebrations of Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthday would be bad for the economy. Several state governors issued proclamations declaring March 4 to be “Presidents’ Day” in their states.
Nevertheless, the federal bill went into hibernation.
In 1968 sentiment grew for a Uniform Monday Holiday Act that would move several national holidays from their specific dates to the nearest Monday, thereby reducing down-time for the economy and giving workers a series of three-day holidays. An early draft of the enabling bill would have renamed the Washington’s Birthday holiday “Presidents’ Day” to honor both Washington and Lincoln, whose birthday is on February 12 and has never been a national holiday.
The bill passed and was signed into law as the Uniform Monday Holiday Act on June 28 that year. George Washington’s birthday, February 22, was moved from that date to the third Monday of the month and remains officially, the George Washington’s Birthday Holiday. The term “Presidents’ Day” is not mentioned in the Act.
Some Lincoln devotees saw the name “Presidents’ Day” as an opportunity to use the new dating of the holiday to honor both men. Three states, Illinois, Missouri and Connecticut set February 12 aside as a state holiday to specifically honor Lincoln.
Other states have their own take on the George Washington’s Birthday Holiday. Massachusetts state law requires the governor to issue a “Presidents’ Day” proclamation on May 29 every year to honor four presidents with roots in the state: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Calvin Coolidge and John F. Kennedy.
Alabama calls the holiday “Washington and Jefferson Day,” although Thomas Jefferson was born in April.
Used car and mattress salesmen, however, love what they call “Presidents’ Day,” as they salivate over plans for three-day weekend sales. Beginning in the 1980s advertisers began to use the “Presidents’ Day” designation apparently because it had a snappier sound than “Washington’s Birthday.” The growing repetition of the fake name led calendar producers do put it on their products without verifying it.
It has been said that a day that honors all presidents honors none. After all, who stops to think about William Henry Harrison, Franklin Pierce, or Chester A. Arthur on the third Monday of February? Many people may be confused about the day, but the Wikipedia Encyclopedia isn’t. If you go to Wikipedia and enter “Presidents’ Day,” it will redirect you to “Washington’s Birthday.” As will Google.
Mr. Hannaford is the author of The Essential George Washington.