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The History of Presidents Day

-History.com

Presidents Day is an American holiday celebrated on the third Monday in February. Originally established in 1885 in recognition of President George Washington, the holiday became popularly known as Presidents Day after it was moved as part of 1971’s Uniform Monday Holiday Act, an attempt to create more three-day weekends for the nation’s workers. While several states still have individual holidays honoring the birthdays of Washington, Abraham Lincoln and other figures, Presidents Day is now popularly viewed as a day to celebrate all U.S. presidents, past and present.

Washington’s Birthday
The story of Presidents Day date begins in 1800. Following the death of George Washington in 1799, his February 22 birthday became a perennial day of remembrance. At the time, Washington was venerated as the most important figure in American history, and events like the 1832 centennial of his birth and the start of construction of the Washington Monument in 1848 were cause for national celebration. While Washington’s Birthday was an unofficial observance for most of the 1800s, it was not until the late 1870s that it became a federal holiday. Senator Steven Wallace Dorsey of Arkansas was the first to propose the measure, and in 1879 President Rutherford B. Hayes signed it into law. The holiday initially only applied to the District of Columbia, but in 1885 it was expanded to the whole country.

Presidents Day Transformed
By the mid-1980s, Washington’s Birthday was known to many Americans as Presidents Day. This shift had solidified in the early 2000s, by which time as many as half the 50 states had changed the holiday’s name to Presidents Day on their calendars. Some states have even chosen to customize the holiday by adding new figures to the celebration. Arkansas, for instance, celebrates Washington as well as civil rights activist Daisy Gatson Bates. Alabama, meanwhile, uses Presidents Day to commemorate Washington and Thomas Jefferson (who was born in April). Washington and Lincoln still remain the two most recognized leaders, but Presidents Day is now popularly seen as a day to recognize the lives and achievements of all of America’s chief executives. Congressional measures to restore Washington and Lincoln’s individual birthdays were proposed during the early 2000s, but all failed to gain much attention. 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.

Did you know? Presidents Day never falls on the actual birthday of any American president. Four chief executives — George Washington, William Henry Harrison, Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan — were born in February, but their birthdays all come either too early or late to coincide with Presidents Day, which is always celebrated on the third Monday of the month.