With the frenzied pace of President Trump’s first few weeks, many Americans would like nothing more than a respite from all things Oval Office. Strangely, they may get their wish via this year’s Presidents’ Day. As you block out your Monday plans, spare one final POTUS thought to consider the story of the holiday itself.
First things first. As far as the federal government is concerned, there is no such thing as “Presidents’ Day.” Its original style, “Washington’s Birthday,” is still on the books.
The initial public celebration of what would become today’s holiday took place before the United States even had a chief executive.
George Washington after Gilbert Stuart,“Patriae Pater,” by Thurwanger, (1853). From the HSP graphics collection
Wintering at their Valley Forge encampment, frostbitten Continentals warmed their general with birthday cheers that – unlike blankets and shoes – were not in short supply that frigid Feb. 22, 1778.
To Americans in the early days of the Republic, Washington’s birthday was as prominent as the Fourth of July and celebrated much in the same way.
For the Virginian’s 66th, the occasion was “observed here by the shipping in the harbor displaying their flags and streams at full rise,” as reported by the 1798 edition of Philadelphia’s Gazette of the United States. In addition to ringing the “State House Bell,” an “elegant ball and supper” followed “federal salutes . . . fired on board the armed brig Rose.”
(It was the 1846 birthday sounding that delivered the final crack in what is now known as the Liberty Bell.)
In the run-up to the Civil War, both abolitionists and supporters of slavery commemorated the event that was not yet an official holiday. Then – as now – a fight for the soul of the country played out as a tussle over control of the nation’s past.
It was on Washington’s birthday in 1862 that the permanent government of the Confederate States of America was established in Richmond, Va. Lest the symbolism be missed, it is an equestrian portrait of the first president that adorns the secessionists’ Great Seal.
Only days prior, Abraham Lincoln called for public readings of Washington’s “immortal farewell address” to mark his predecessor’s birthday.
Lincoln raising the flag in front of the State House (Independence Hall), print (1861). From the HSP print collection (Collection V89)
By the time Congress got around to designating Feb. 22 as a federal holiday in 1879, many Americans had already begun to celebrate Lincoln’s red-letter day (Feb. 12).
“I care more for Lincoln’s great toe than for the whole body of the perfect George Washington . . . who ‘never told a lie’ and never did anything interesting,” wrote W.E.B. Du Bois in 1922.
The commercial revelry marking modern Presidents’ Days, however, clashes with the intent of the holiday’s original boosters.
“Legal Holiday – Washington’s Birthday – No Business Transacted,” declared an 1890 promotional flyer produced by the Franklin Printing Co.
For many, Feb. 22 was a chance to “pause for a moment in the rush for the material and give a thought back to those through whose efforts they derived the blessings which came with American liberty,” as the Evening Post affirmed in 1920.
That same year, in his first proclamation as mayor of Philadelphia, J. Hampton Moore argued for a cessation of “all unnecessary business.” This spanned far beyond official government work. Even the John Wanamaker department store closed in observance.
By midcentury these sentiments had shifted. Trade and travel associations pressed for a Monday holiday to stoke consumer spending and vacationing. With passage of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, the occasion migrated to its current date in 1971.
While such states as Minnesota and Montana still style it as “Washington’s and Lincoln’s Birthday,” Presidents’ Day has become a celebration of all Oval Office occupants. Even Lancaster’s own James Buchanan – generally considered the least successful resident of 1600 Pennsylvania – technically gets a shout-out.
But the holiday’s original thrust seems to have been entirely lost.
“What you don’t see is the patriotic zeal that used to mark the birthdays of our two great national heroes,” noted local historian Jonathan Zimmerman in 2015. “Instead, we find Washington and Lincoln adorning advertisements for furniture, electronics, and cars.”
Washington himself appeared to be more aloof about his big day.
“Snow about two inches deep fell in the night,” was all he thought to record in his pocket diary – owned by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania – on his 64th.