Winter 2004, Vol. 36, No. 4
By George, IT IS Washington's Birthday!
By C. L. Arbelbide
Meanwhile, Back at the Schools
In 1968, no educational organizations—teachers, administrators, or PTAs—were listed as supporters of the holiday bill. While Congress counted on state legislatures to align their state holidays with those of the federal government, no thought was given to the effect revised federal holidays would have on individual school districts.
Many school districts could independently determine their calendar until state legislatures began requiring of school districts a set number of days within a school year. Although school districts made every effort to honor federal holidays, administrators were faced with juggling an already packed school year calendar.
Where once school ended at the end of May and began after Labor Day, school years have expanded into June and even August as educators found it necessary to lengthen the school year to accommodate the evolving required educational mandates. Rather than continue to erase the summer break, schools began omitting various federal holidays (most often Columbus Day, Veterans Day, and the generic "Presidents' Day") from school calendars. Political correctness caused schools to shy away from ignoring the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday, while the 'title confused' third Monday in February—now being passed over as a holiday—emerged with newfound purpose as staff development time, teacher/parent meetings, or as a backup snow make-up day.
Federal holidays whose authentic titles once automatically graced school calendars were removed for fear that parents and students would interpret their appearance as confirmation that students would have the day off.
For students in Texas, the renaming of the state's Washington holiday to "President's Day" established the beginning of generations of children whose connection to Washington was fading. California took the opposite tact, requiring schools to promote lessons about George Washington on the Friday before his Monday holiday.
Perhaps the ultimate ironic reaction occurred in George Washington's native home state of Virginia. Ignoring not only the correct federal title but Virginia's own state holiday title— "George Washington Day"—the state's Department of Education ousted the accurate "Washington's Birthday" holiday title from the 1998 Standards of Learning in favor of the advertising soundbite.
By the late 1990s, the snowball effect took hold. With more publishing houses substituting Presidents' Day for "Washington's Birthday," children's holiday books based on incorrect research were infiltrating their way into school and public libraries.
Schools in Washington's own birth county (Westmoreland County) and the City of Alexandria (near Mount Vernon and home to the long-running George Washington Birthday Parade) succumbed to the Presidents' Day phrase. At the beginning of the 2004–2005 school year, of Virginia's 134 school districts, only two received an "A" for accuracy. Both the Fairfax and Richmond County Public Schools systems listed the correct "Washington's Birthday" holiday title on their respective Internet sites.
A Phantom Presidential Proclamation
Ahhhh, the Internet. A haven for homemade home pages. As web writers began pointing fingers at who was responsible for the federal Washington's Birthday holiday title being changed to Presidents' Day, web sites unanimously attributed the change to a presidential proclamation—issued by President Richard Nixon—who was in office when the "Uniform Monday Holiday Law" was enacted in 1971.
Like a platter of hors d'oeuvres, word-for-word segments of the "alleged" proclamation were passed from one web site to another (including educational based and various U.S. embassy sites) as if cut and paste was the new style of web writing. Supposedly—it was surmised—Nixon had issued a presidential proclamation in 1971 changing the name from Washington's Birthday to Presidents' Day.
Had any writer cared to call the Nixon Presidential Materials Staff of the National Archives and Records Administration; the staff at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California; or the law library at the Library of Congress, they would have learned that no such presidential proclamation exists. As an archivist at the Nixon staff commented, this phantom presidential proclamation was 'the ultimate in presidential urban myths."
In the absence of fact checking, web writers had relied on a fictitious source—an Internet story whose origins were traced to an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette humor column authored by Michael Storey.
A "Cat's" Tale
That President Bill Clinton really had issued a proclamation in 2000 declaring the third Monday in February to be Presidents' Day irked Storey, who responded with a fictional interview as to how Presidents' Day got its name. The source for the "interview" was the author's cat, who "asserted" that Nixon had created a presidential proclamation changing the federal holiday's name from "Washington's Birthday" to "President's Day. " Web writers ignored the author's "fictitious" disclaimer.
USA Today's Richard Benedetto quoted from the mythical story. "So how did Washington's Birthday morph into President's Day? It seems we have Richard Nixon to thank—or blame—for that. On February 21, 1971, Nixon issued a proclamation naming the holiday 'President's Day,' 'the first such three-day holiday set aside to honor all presidents, even myself.'"In 2002, Ron Wolfe, also of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, recalled the aftermath. "Told that he [Benedetto] may have quoted a . . . cat to prove his point, Benedetto set the paper's library to work, trying to track down again where he found the quote. " Although no citation was found, no retraction appeared in USA Today.
What Nixon did in 1971 was to issue the traditional standard executive order announcing the implementation of new federal legislation. Nixon's executive order reminded citizens, as did many newspapers on January 1, of the new federal holiday calendar being implemented: New Year's Day, January 1; Washington's Birthday, the third Monday in February; Memorial Day, the last Monday in May; Independence Day, July 4; Labor Day, the first Monday in September; Columbus Day, the second Monday in October; Veterans Day, the fourth Monday in October, Thanksgiving Day, the fourth Thursday in November; and Christmas Day, December 25.
Nixon did—in a separate statement—recognize the birthday of Abraham Lincoln but did not suggest, refer to, or use the term "Presidents' Day" in either of the executive orders.
President Richard Nixon did not, as a widely circulated Internet story claims, issue a proclamation changing the holiday's name from Washington's Birthday to Presidents' Day. His Executive Order 115 on February 10, 1971, announced the new federal holiday calendar, as passed by Congress in 1968. [full image]
Coming Full Circle
Representative Gross's concern for the workers who might find themselves without holidays was justified. Manufacturers and business were not bound to federal holiday laws. Three-day holiday weekends were sales bonanzas. Workers who once enjoyed midweek holidays were finding little support from management to benefit from Monday holidays.
Where white-collar profession enjoyed the day off, blue-collar work forces could not. Workers in travel and tourism industries, home improvement centers, recreation-related business, as well as gas stations and the trash-collecting industry rarely have any holidays off.
The closest the country comes to a complete holiday shutdown is Christmas Day, a fixed date not restricted to a Monday holiday. In the name of uniformity, Congress succeeded in separating the public into two groups: those with and those without holidays.
Representative Kuykendall's prediction of schoolchildren not knowing or caring when George Washington was born has come to pass, too, even in Washington's home state of Virginia, where the state's Department of Education removed the first President's identity from the February holiday.On the bright side, there is the federal Office of Personnel Management's holiday Internet site, which attempts to verify the correct federal holiday title, noting: "This holiday is designated as 'Washington's Birthday' in section 6103 (a) of title 5 of the United States Code, which is the law that specifies holidays for Federal employees. Though other institutions such as state and local governments and private business may use other names, it is our policy to always refer to holidays by the names designated in the law. "
At Mount Vernon the public relations department removed all references to the Nixon proclamation and Presidents' Day from their Internet site in December of 2003. Both Mount Vernon and the National Park Service's George Washington's Birthplace National Monument offer the most accurate look at the heritage associate with the Washington's Birthday holiday.
Out in Washington, Virginia, the Rappahannock County Library initiated, in February 2004, the art and essay program "By George, It's Washington's Birthday"TM to counter the advertising term and take back the rightful federal and state holiday heritage associated with Virginia's native son.
Ignore or Restore?
Only two Americans have been honored with individual federal holidays. The original intent was to recognize them on their birthdays. The Uniform Monday Holiday Law removed the February 22 connection to Washington. Years later, having learned their lesson, Congress made certain the Monday in January selected for the new holiday was the Monday on which King's birth date would occasionally fall. That one holiday has the direct birth date connection and the other does not still contributes to the confusion—is the third Monday in February Washington's Birthday or Presidents' Day?
Washington's birthday holiday came about seventy years after his death. The King holiday has emerged within the primary family's lifetime. As there are no primary survivors to speak for George Washington, it falls to Congress to resurrect the original honor accorded Washington by the Thirty-seventh Congress in 1879 and re-link the federal holiday to his birth date of February 22.
The question facing Congress is whether to restore the holiday to the February 22 birth date or shift the holiday to the fourth Monday in February, allowing February 22 to occasionally fall on that Monday.
Perhaps Congress can find the answer right in its own backyard—within the halls of the Capitol. Members can ponder the question while gazing at the Apotheosis of Washington mural adorning the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. Or contemplate how their annual congressional February ritual of reading Washington's "Farewell Address" came about. What reason did the citizens, in 1862, have in bringing petitions to Senator Andrew Johnson demanding the reading of the address on Washington's birthday? The country was in the midst of civil war. The citizens looked to Washington's words for strength, and Johnson carried the message: "I think the time has arrived when we should recur back to the days, the times, and the doings of Washington and the patriots of the Revolution, who founded the government under which we live." Is there ever a time in our country's present or future circumstances that we could not benefit from being reminded of how the citizens who came before dealt with the crises associated with being a country?
The recognition accorded the February 22 date is—in effect—a look back at how the country survived in spite of itself. It is also a time to reflect on the origins of slavery. Considering that February is also Black History Month, the existence of Washington's Birthday provides an opportunity to take an expanded look at the issue of civil rights from the country's earliest days—not just the days of the Civil War or the 1950s and 1960s.
Washington's deeds and words continue to inspire. Can we afford to ignore the contributions of George Washington, or shall we restore the connection to this special heritage and our unique historical past? It's something to contemplate on Washington's Birthday holiday in 2005, when it falls on February 21—the closest it can ever come to Washington's birth date of February 22. Federal holiday history continues to be a work in progress.
C. L. Arbelbide is a historian and storyteller specializing in federal holiday history and unique events associated with the White House, the U.S. Capitol, and the National Mall. She is the author of The White House Easter Egg Roll (1997).
Note on Sources
The Nixon Presidential Materials Staff of the National Archives and Records Administration is the custodian of the historical materials created and received by the White House during the administration of Richard Nixon, 1969–1974, and is located in College Park, Maryland.
The House debate on the Monday Holiday Bill is recorded in the Congressional Record, May 6 (pp. 11827–11830), 7 (pp. 12077–12079), and 9 (pp. 12583–12611), 1968.
Useful secondary sources are William S. Ayres, "At Home with George: Commercialization of the Washington Image, 1776–1876, " in George Washington: American Symbol (New York : Hudson Hills Press, 1999); and Stephen W. Stathis, "Federal Holidays: Evolution and Application" (January 21, 1999), Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress.
The controversy over moving the date of Thanksgiving is discussed in G. Wallace Chessman, "Thanksgiving: Another FDR Experiment, " Prologue: Quarterly of the National Archives 22 (Fall 1990): 273–285.
President Nixon's mythical proclamation about "President's Day" is told in Michael Storey's column of "humor and/or total fabrication, " "Otus the Head Cat: Clinton joins disgraced Nixon in ride on George's coattails," Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, February 26, 2000, p. E3; and retold by Richard Benedetto, "Presidents Day? No president's day," USA Today, February 19, 2001, p. A7. Ron Wolf's correction, "We can tell no lie: Monday is not 'President's Day,'" appeared in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, on February 17, 2002, p. 1A.
The web sites for Mount Vernon and George Washington's Birthplace National Monument are www.mountvernon.org and www.nps.gov/gewa/index.htm; the Rappahannock County Library web site is at www.rappahannocklibrary.org.
The nine federal holidays before 1971 were New Year's Day, January 1; Inauguration Day (every four years), January 20; Washington's Birthday, February 22; Memorial Day, May 31; Independence Day, July 4; Labor Day (the original Monday holiday), first Monday in September; Veterans Day, November 11; Thanksgiving Day, fourth Thursday in November; and Christmas Day, December 25.