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The history and meaning of Presidents' Day is more confusing than many federal holidays. Just who do we honor on this annual holiday?

George Washington

Black and white portrait of President George Washington from the Library of Congress collectionsPresident George Washington The first president of the United States, George Washington, was a gentleman landowner in Virginia. He was a delegate to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia when it convened in May 1775. During this gathering, Washington was elected Commander in Chief of the Continental Army. He held his post for six years, starting on July 3, 1775. He was an important proponent of Constitutional Convention of 1787 at which he was elected President, upon ratification of the Constitution. He served two terms as President. Washington was held in such esteem that his birthday, February 22nd, was celebrated unofficially beginning in 1796, during his final year in office. By the early 1800s, Washington’s Birthday had become an established, though not official, national holiday. It wasn’t until 1880 that Washington’s birthday did become an official federal holiday, making him the first United States citizen to be recognized in this way. The federal holiday was always celebrated on his actual birth date, February 22. Though today the holiday is commonly referred to as 'Presidents' Day,' the official name remains Washington's Birthday To add to the confusion, during Washington’s lifetime, his birthday was sometimes celebrated on February 11th. This date was chosen because according to the Julian ("Old Style") calendar that was still in use in England and her colonies up to 1752, this was Washington’s actual date of birth. The Gregorian ("New Style") calendar that the colonists adopted added eleven days to the Julian calendar to synchronize it with the astronomical year; hence the date February 22nd.

Abraham Lincoln

Photograph of President Abraham Lincoln reading with his son, Tad, from the Library of Congress collections

The only other president to be honored with a birthday observance was Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln rose from a poor background to become a lawyer and circuit judge. He was defeated by Stephen Douglas in his bid for the Senate in 1858, but was elected President in 1860. Lincoln, of course, is best known for issuing the Emancipation Proclamation that bestowed freedom on all slaves in the Confederate states and for his steadfast defense of the Union. Lincoln’s birthday was first officially celebrated on February 12, 1866, one year after his assassination, when both houses of Congress joined in a memorial service in his honor. Lincoln’s birthday was never designated as a federal holiday, but was celebrated by many states. So, for many years, both Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays were celebrated separately on their actual dates of birth—- February 22nd was observed as a federal public holiday to honor the birthday of George Washington and February 12th was observed as a public holiday (in most states) to honor the birthday of Abraham Lincoln.

Presidents' Day?

Color photograph of the Washington Elm at Phillips Andover Academy in winterIn 1968, Congress decided to create a uniform system of federal Monday holidays in order to provide workers with some three-day weekends. Lawmakers voted to shift three existing holidays (including Washington's Birthday) to Mondays. This law took effect in 1971, and as a result the Washington's Birthday holiday was changed from February 22 date to the third Monday in February. This change was not without controversy. There was some concern that Washington's identity would be lost (since the third Monday in February would never fall on his birth date of February 22nd). At this time, there was also a movement to rename the public holiday "Presidents' Day," but this stalled in committee. According to Mr. William Moore McCulloch (R-Ohio), "It was the collective judgment of the Committee on the Judiciary…that this [naming the day "President's Day"] would be unwise. Certainly, not all Presidents are held in the same high esteem as the Father of our Country. There are many who are not inclined to pay their respects to certain Presidents. Moreover, it is probable that the members of one political party would not relish honoring a President from the other political party whether he was in office, no matter how outstanding history may find his leadership."

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