The Real Story Behind ‘Presidents’ Day’
Today is Presidents' Day and to tell the story of how this holiday came to be, we have to step back in time to the year 1800. George Washington had passed away only the year before and his birthday, which was February 22nd, became a day of remembrance for our very first president.
At the time, George Washington was the most important person in American history and the legacy of his life was cause for national celebration. Washington’s birthday was unofficially observed for most of the 1800s, but it wasn’t until late in the 1870s that it became a federal holiday.
Senator Steven Wallace Dorsey of Arkansas is the person credited with proposing that Washington’s birthday should be made a federal holiday. In 1879, President Rutherford B. Hayes agreed with Senator Dorsey and signed it into law. At the time that it was signed into law, Washington’s birthday was only observed by people who lived in the District of Columbia, but by 1885, the entire country was observing Washington’s birthday.
Washington’s birthday was actually the first national holiday signed into law that celebrated the life of a single American. The second? Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which was signed into law in 1983.
From 1879 to the late 1960’s, America celebrated Washington’s birthday, but then people started celebrating the lives of all presidents. And, in the late 1960’s, there was a senator named Robert McClory who suggested that Congress propose a new measure called the ‘Uniform Monday Holiday Act.’ The thought behind this was that several federal holidays should be moved to a predetermined Monday. By moving the holidays, employed Americans would be able to enjoy a three day weekend. The act also looked to combine the celebration of Washington’s birthday with the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, which fell on February 12th. States such as Illinois had been celebrating Lincoln’s birthday for years on their own, but the proposal would bring the nation together to celebrate his birthday as well.
Senator McClory suggested that Washington’s Day be renamed “President’s Day.” At first, lawmakers weren’t crazy about the idea, and the subject was dropped. What wasn’t dropped though was the idea to move several federal holidays to predetermined Mondays and the Uniform Monday Holiday Act was passed in 1968, becoming official in 1971 under an executive order from President Nixon.
President Nixon continued to call the holiday Washington’s Birthday even though it was moved to a date other than Washington’s actual date of birth. Because the date of observance was moved, most people thought that the new date was to honor both Washington and Lincoln since it fell right between their two birthdays and this is where heads of marketing put their heads together.
Marketers loved that Washington’s Birthday was moved to a Monday because it meant that they could play up the three day weekend with sales. Suddenly, “Presidents’ Day” bargains were being advertised at stores around the country.
By the mid-1980s most Americans were calling Washington’s Birthday Presidents’ Day and by the early 2000’s, as many as half of the 50 states had changed the holiday’s name to Presidents’ Day on their calendars.
While Washington and Lincoln are still the most recognized leaders of the free world, President’s Day is now seen as a way to honor and recognize the lives of all of America’s presidents.