Let’s start at the beginning. George Washington was born on February 22, 1732, on his parents’ tobacco farm about 70 miles south of current-day Washington, DC.
At the time, however, the American colonies operated under the old Julian calendar, so George’s birthday was February 11, 1731. When Washington was twenty-one years old, the British Empire switched to the Gregorian calendar, erasing eleven days from 1752 and switching New Year’ Day from March 25 to January 1. Forever more, February 11 would be February 22.
Washington himself, then, marched forward in history: commanding the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War, presiding over the Constitutional Convention of 1787, and serving as our first President of the United States.
Washington, however, grew to become more than these roles, and more than a mere man. He was an institution, a symbol, a unifying figurehead to which almost all Americans could pledge allegiance. In a country as diverse as the United States, riven by sectional, religious, and ideological divides, George Washington was the one thing everyone could celebrate.
So, naturally, Washington’s Birthday became the unofficial folk holiday of the young Republic. In 1832, just after the country had narrowly dodged a Civil War in the Missouri Crisis, Americans went all-out to celebrate the centennial of the unifying Founding Father’s birth. Parades and parties, speeches and services marked the day nationwide.
There was in 1832, however, one sign of the troubles to come. Some in Congress wanted to moved George Washington’s body from his burial location at Mount Vernon to a specially designed crypt in the Capitol. Virginians threatened to kill anyone who dared touch their native son’s sacred resting place. To this day, Washington’s Tomb under the Capitol’s Rotunda remains empty.
The killing commenced, finally, in 1861, when the Civil War began. Washington’s Birthday became just one rallying point for reunifying the divided country.
The reunification project was still underway in 1879 when Congress declared Washington’s Birthday an official holiday in the District of Columbia. Six years later, the holiday was extended nationwide.
That really should be the end of the story. But the Civil War and Reconstruction, taken together from 1861-1877, wasn’t just a breaking apart and reassembling of a nation. It was a second Founding, what the Gettysburg Address calls “a new birth of freedom,” to correct the errors of the first and fulfill the promise of the American Revolution.
The Father of this Second Founding , Abraham Lincoln, also had a birthday in February, ten days before Washington’s. And for those who supported the Union cause, the birthday of the martyred President became as hallowed as that of Washington. Unofficial observances and commemorations on February 12 only increased into the 20th century, especially after the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in 1922. But no one succeeded in getting Congress to declare Lincoln’s Birthday an official holiday.
Menu from Lincoln’s Birthday celebration held by the Republican Club of the City of New York in 1887 (New York Public Library)
The Great Emancipator’s birthday held special significance in African American communities. It just so happened that the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass chose to observe his own birthday on Valentine’s Day, February 14, though, born in slavery, he had no idea the true date of his birth. The coupling of Lincoln’s and Douglass’s birthdays inspired Black scholar Carter G. Woodson to create “Negro History Week” in 1926. Today, we observe all of February as Black History Month.
As George Washington’s significance as a unifying symbol of nationhood declined, some activists, led by a man named Harold Stonebridge Fischer, lobbied for the creation of a holiday honoring ALL Presidents. It had a non-partisan allure, not specifically honoring Lincoln, but not ignoring him either.
Heck, you could use the day to celebrate Chester A. Arthur or Franklin Pierce if you’d like. But the bill to establish an official “Presidents Day” never made it out of committee. Washington’s Birthday remained the official holiday.
What Congress did do, however, was move select federal holidays to Mondays in order to create popular three-day weekends. The Uniform Monday Holiday Act, passed in 1968, shifted Washington’s Birthday from February 22 to the third Monday in February. The bill also moved Memorial Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day, and, originally, Veterans Day to Mondays. (Between 1971-1978, Veterans Day was officially observed the last Monday of October.)
Moving Washington’s Birthday to the third Monday in February mathematically guaranteed that the holiday would never fall on February 22.
Detached from the date of Washington’s birth, the holiday was now free to take on other associations. And given the federalized nature of the American political system, where state governments have the power to act on their own, idiosyncratic February Monday holidays began popping up like wildflowers in a freshly plowed field.
A bunch of states opted to call it “Presidents Day,” or some singular or plural possessive version of it. A few states added “Lincoln” to “Washington,” so as not to sleight either. Instead of recognizing Lincoln, Alabama inexplicably chose to honor the April-born Thomas Jefferson on the Third Monday in February. Virginia renamed it “George Washington Day,” as if to remove any ambiguity.
Arkansas decided to add Civil Rights activist and publisher Daisy Bates to Washington’s Birthday commemoration, though Bates was born in November.
California steadfastly adheres to February 12 as “Lincoln Day,” while apparently relegating the federal holiday to bureaucratic oblivion as “The Third Monday in February.”
So, a holiday designed to unify a diverse nation now reflects that diversity back to us. We use the day mainly, it seems, to shop for mattresses and cars. Maybe King Commerce is what unifies us most, after all.