Origin of Presidents’ DayFeb 24, 2023 12:17PM ● By Rachel Cordeiro
Monday, Feb. 20, will be this year’s observance of Presidents’ Day, a day set aside to honor the history of the American presidency and the men who have served in its office. Originally, Feb. 22, the birthday of President George Washington, was chosen as a special day of remembrance for him. The idea was first proposed by Senator Steven Wallace Dorsey in the late 1870s and was signed into law on Jan. 31, 1879, by President Rutherford B. Hayes. The new federal holiday was unique because it was the first of its kind, a holiday observed specifically on someone’s birth date in honor of them. Initially, this holiday was only intended to be observed by federal district workers but was later extended to all federal offices located across the country.
Shortly thereafter, several states wished to celebrate the birthdays of additional presidents, such as Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson, or even acknowledge and honor the presidential office in general. The number of proposed dates proved challenging, and in 1951, a formal committee was formed to find a solution that might address the complications of juggling multiple dates that many desired to be observed. They concluded that it would be too burdensome to add another holiday to the federal calendar since both Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays were each already observed in February in addition to Inauguration Day which, at that time, followed closely behind in March. The idea was ultimately dismissed.
Then, in 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Bill, which caused several holidays to be moved to Mondays for the sake of consistency in the workplace calendar and to provide longer holiday weekends for workers. After the bill was passed, the celebration of Washington’s birthday on Feb. 22 would now be officially observed on the third Monday in February under the new Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1971 (82. Stat. 250).
Over the years, there has been some confusion regarding the holiday’s commemoration. Since the date often falls between the birthdays of Lincoln and Washington, Feb. 12 and Feb. 22, respectively, many assumed it was in remembrance of both presidents. Others unofficially adopted it as a formal day set aside to honor every great man of the presidency or to highlight presidential achievements in general. By the mid-1980s, its new title began to emerge, and, ultimately, by the early 2000s, it had completely morphed into what many refer to today as Presidents’ Day. During that time, over half of the 50 states began to mark it on calendars.
According to History.com, “…the federal government has held fast to the original incarnation of the holiday as a celebration of the country’s first president. The third Monday in February is still listed on official calendars as Washington’s Birthday.” However, the subtle grammatical shift of the apostrophe found in the holiday’s title, which transitioned from President’s Day to Presidents’ Day, states clearly that the American majority now consider it a day set aside to honor all of our nation’s presidents, past and present.