Prologue Magazine

By George, IT IS Washington’s Birthday!

Winter 2004, Vol. 36, No. 4

By C. L. Arbelbide


class looks at sculpture of G Washington
Debate over the Uniform Monday Holiday Bill in 1968 touched on the fear that George Washington would be forgotten in the schoolrooms and future generations would not know about the Father of Our Country. (148-GW-498)

As a student at Washington Elementary School in Kingsburg, California, I took great pride in enjoying the federal holiday dedicated to the "Father of Our Country," George Washington. Federal offices, banks, schools, and most business closed to pay him homage. That the February 22 holiday could have occurred in the midst of potential foul weather did not deter children across the land from enjoying a winter's holiday of play.

Before 1971, Washington's Birthday was one of nine federal holidays celebrated on specific dates, which—year after year—fell on different days of the week (the exception being Labor Day—the original Monday holiday). Then came the tinkering of the Ninetieth Congress in 1968. Determined to create a uniform system of federal Monday holidays, Congress voted to shift three existing holidays to Mondays and expanded the number further by creating one new Monday holiday.

Washington's Birthday was uprooted from its fixed February 22 date and transplanted to the third Monday in February, followed by Memorial Day being relocated from the last day in May to the last Monday in May. One newly created holiday—Columbus Day—was positioned on the second Monday in October, as Veterans Day—ousted from its November 11 foxhole—was reassigned to the fourth Monday in October (although rebellion by veterans' organizations and state governments forced the 1980 return of Veterans Day to its historic Armistice date of November 11).

That Washington's birth date—February 22—would never fall on the third Monday in February was considered of minimum importance. After all, who could ever forget all that George Washington meant to this country?

The Original "American Idol"

portrait of George Washington
George Washington has been honored in many ways using either his name (universities, bridges, towns) or image (stamps, currency, statues, paintings). (148-GW-592)

Historic dates, like stepping stones, create a footpath through our heritage. Experienced by one generation and recalled by those to come, it is through these annual recollections that our heritage is honored. In 1879 the Forty-fifth Congress deemed George Washington's birth date, February 22, a historic date worthy of holiday recognition.

Washington was a man of his time: a farmer, a soldier, and an owner of slaves. Named commander-in-chief of the American Continental army, he led the colonies to victory over England, securing independence for an infant nation. His political leadership led to his election as president of the 1787 Constitutional Convention. Once the states ratified the Constitution, he was elected the first President of the United States, completing two terms.

Everything about George Washington was entwined with the evolution of a young nation. His name was associated with virtue, honesty, strength, courage, and patriarchal leadership. Schools, bridges, towns, the national capital, and even a state were named in his honor.

His likeness graced currency, stamps, sculptures, and paintings. Manufacturers deemed his image as public property. Historian William Ayres has stated that Washington must "surely hold the record for the number of times the image of a historical figure appeared on goods made for the American home."

At six-feet, two and a half inches tall, Washington's presence enhanced his political stature. Succeeding generations found significant ways to periodically resurrect his memory, including the centennial birthday celebration of 1832 and the laying of the Washington Monument's cornerstone sixteen years later (1848). Close on the heels of the national centennial celebration of 1876, a patriotic colonial revival followed and, before the end of the century, a centennial observance of his death in 1899. With the 1930s carving of his likeness in stone on Mount Rushmore and the posthumous promotion to the rank of six-star General of the Armies in 1976, the numerous tributes continued to reaffirm George Washington's place as the original "American Idol."

In 1879—An Unprecedented Idea

In the late 1870s, Senator Steven Wallace Dorsey (R-Arkansas) proposed the unprecedented idea of adding "citizen" Washington's birth date, February 22, to the four existing bank holidays previously approved in 1870.

Originally federal worker absenteeism had forced Congress to take a cue from surrounding states and formally declare New Year's Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas Day as federal holidays in the District of Columbia.

The idea of adding Washington's Birthday to the federal holiday list simply made official an unofficial celebration in existence long before Washington's death. A popular proposal, the holiday bill required little debate. Signed into law January 31, 1879, by President Rutherford B. Hayes, the law was implemented in 1880 and applied only to District federal workers. In 1885 the holiday was extended to federal workers in the thirty-eight states.

Washington's Birthday had become the first federal holiday to single out an individual's birth date. The honor lasted for less than a century.

Just Who Would Benefit?

While the urgency to revamp the federal holiday system in 1968 was spurred by the belief (although no statistics were available) that government employee holiday absenteeism would be kept to a minimum, other motivations began to take center stage.

On May 6, 1968, the Congressional Record noted a three-point benefit package directed specifically at families:

  • "Three-day holidays offer greater opportunities for families—especially those whose members may be widely separated—to get together. . . ."
  • "The three-day span of leisure time . . . would allow our citizens greater participation in their hobbies as well as in educational and cultural activities."
  • "Monday holidays would improve commercial and industrial production by minimizing midweek holiday interruptions of production schedules and reducing employee absenteeism before and after midweek holidays."
Uniform Monday Holiday Law of 1968 The 1968 law: With the implementation of the new federal law in 1971, the Uniform Monday Holiday Law made Washington's Birthday the third Monday in February. (General Records of the U.S. Government, RG 11) [full image]

Endorsing the proposed holiday changes were various business-related organizations including the Chamber of Commerce of the United States, the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Association of Travel Organizations, and the National Retail Federation.

The task of shepherding the holiday bill through the House Judiciary Committee fell to Representative Robert McClory, a Republican from Illinois. Noting "the bill has many purposes," McClory commented, "I would say the primary purpose, as far as I am concerned, is this: It will provide more opportunities for family togetherness and more opportunities for people to visit the great historic sites of our Nation, such as the great Lincoln country of Illinois, Williamsburg, Yorktown, Washington, D.C., Mount Vernon, Gettysburg, and a number of other historic places which we associate with these great national holidays." (How families from the West Coast were to do this in three days was not discussed.) McClory continued, "So the beneficiaries are going to be the men, women and children of the United States."

Just which "families" would reap the federal holiday benefits concerned Representative Harold Gross (R-Iowa). "I have an idea if we make Monday holidays, to fulfill the promise to merchants that they are going to do a better business, that employees of the stores of this country will have no holidays. They will work at selling merchandise. That is about what will happen."

McClory countered, "Let me say generally that the labor unions are in support of this legislation."

Gross replied, "I am not impressed by that."

McClory responded, "We have labor and management joined together in support of this legislation, which is a unique situation. Furthermore, I am not disappointed that someone will obtain an economic advantage from this legislation, because our whole society is built upon a strong economy. This bill will help promote that economy. That is reason to support this bill not a reason to reject it."

Point to Gross. He had successfully uncovered the bill's true purpose only to have the message lost in the avalanche of publicity being generated by business organizations in support of the legislation. A portion of America's nongovernmental workforce were about to lose their holiday rights in exchange for the business of America.

Well, Not All the Federal Holidays

Of the federal holidays, two were almost immediately exempt from the shift to Mondays: New Year's Day, January 1, and Christmas Day, December 25. The Wall Street Journal noted on March 27, 1968, that "Unlike some earlier versions of the Monday holiday bill, Rep. McClory's measure would leave July 4th untouched as Independence Day, and Thanksgiving would continue to fall on the fourth Thursday in November. Patriotic groups [had] been especially hostile to tampering with the Fourth of July, and some merchants were worried that a Monday Thanksgiving would disrupt existing retailing patterns."

That left Washington's Birthday, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day as the prime targets. The usual display of statistics, charts, and graphs highlighting non-Monday holiday traffic accidents and deaths were trotted out, as were pro and con public polls.

Although storm clouds were gathering around the idea of shifting Veterans Day from one month to another, it was the proposal to shift the Washington's Birthday federal holiday from February 22 to the third Monday in February that caused both a congressional and public outcry. That Washington's identity would be lost forced McClory to insist, "We are not changing George Washington's birthday" and further note, "We would make George Washington's Birthday more meaningful to many more people by having it observed on a Monday."

The Rename Game

Opponents were not convinced. It had been McClory—a representative from "the land of Lincoln"—who had attempted in committee to rename "Washington's Birthday" as "President's Day." The bill stalled. The Wall Street Journal reported on March 27: "To win more support, Mr. McClory and his allies dropped the earlier goal of renaming Washington's Birthday [as] Presidents' Day, [which] mollified some Virginia lawmakers. He also agreed to sweeten the package by including Columbus Day as a Federal holiday, a goal sought for years by Italian-American groups."

"It was the collective judgment of the Committee on the Judiciary," stated Mr. William Moore McCulloch (R-Ohio) "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."

Why the "Third" Monday in February?

Had the name of the holiday been changed to Presidents' Day, McClory would have gained instant federal holiday recognition for Illinois native son Abraham Lincoln. With the name change no longer a possibility, McClory positioned the federal holiday on the third Monday in February—a date closer to Lincoln's February 12 birth date, knowing the dual presidential birthday spotlight could be shared by Lincoln.

McClory went so far as to suggest a direct link between the February 22 birth date and the third Monday existed: "Indeed, his [Washington's] birthday will be celebrated frequently on February 22, which in many cases will be the third Monday in February. It will also be celebrated on February 23, just as it is at the present time when February 22 falls on the Sunday preceding."

Virginia representatives Richard Harding Poff and William Lloyd Scott—believing that removing the direct date removed the heritage the date represented—countered the inaccurate information. Poff declared, "Now what that really means is never again will the birthday of the Father of our Country be observed on February 22 because the third Monday will always fall between the 15th of February and the 21st of February." Poff proposed an amendment to retain the February 22 date.

Scott added, "I submit that if we pass this bill without the amendment that Mr. Poff has offered, we are going to run into just as much of a hornet's nest as the one during President [Franklin D.] Roosevelt's regime when he changed the date of the observance of Thanksgiving."

Knowing that future generations were caretakers of the past, Dan Heflin Kuykendall (R-Tennessee) cut to the heart of the matter. "If we do this, 10 years from now our schoolchildren will not know or care when George Washington was born. They will know that in the middle of February they will have a 3-day weekend for some reason. This will come."

The question was taken, and on a division (demanded by Poff) "there were [verbal] ayes, 50, noes 49." McClory demanded tellers to count the votes. "The Committee again divided, and the tellers reported there were 'ayes 59, noes 67.'" With more than 50 percent opposed, the amendment was rejected.

Perpetual Calendar, Anyone?

Had activism followed Poff's failed amendment, creative compromise would still have been possible. Supporters could have seized the moment—capitalizing on McClory's voiced belief that February 22 would fall on a Monday. A check with the crystal ball of calendars—the perpetual calendar—would have confirmed Poff's assertion that February 22 would never fall on the third Monday in February and would have revealed that February 22 would occasionally fall on the fourth Monday in February. Never proposed as an alternative amendment, the "fourth Monday" opportunity passed silently by.

The Erosion of America's Memory

With the traditional ten-day buffer between Lincoln's February 12 and Washington's February 22 birthdays eliminated, the erosion of America's memory began. That Lincoln's birthday had never achieved federal holiday status was about to change.

When the new federal law was implemented in 1971, only two days separated Abraham Lincoln's Friday birthday of February 12 from the Washington's Birthday holiday that fell on February 15—the third Monday in February. Ironically, Washington's birth date of February 22 fell one week later on the fourth Monday in February.

From year to year the calendar compressed and expanded the number of days between the two birthday observances from as few as two days to as many as eight.

Then there was the response by state governments. While Congress could create a uniform federal holiday law, there would not be a uniform holiday title agreement among the states. While a majority of states with individual holidays honoring Washington and Lincoln shifted their state recognition date of Washington's Birthday to correspond to the third Monday in February, a few states chose not to retain the federal holiday title, including Texas, which by 1971 renamed their state holiday "President's Day."

Crossing state borders on Washington's Birthday could lead to holiday title confusion. Then came the power of advertising.

A Golden "Promotional" Egg

For advertisers, the Monday holiday change was the goose that laid the golden "promotional" egg. Using Labor Day marketing as a guide, three-day weekend sales were expanded to include the new Monday holidays. Once the "Uniform Monday Holiday Law" was implemented, it took just under a decade to build a head of national promotional sales steam.

Local advertisers morphed both "Abraham Lincoln's Birthday" and "George Washington's Birthday" into the sales sound bite "President's Day," expanding the traditional three-day sales to begin before Lincoln's birth date and end after Washington's February 22 birth. In some instances, advertisers promoted the sales campaign through the entire month of February. To the unsuspecting public, the term linking both presidential birthdays seemed to explain the repositioning of the holiday between two high-profile presidential birthdays.

After a decade of local sporadic use, the catchall phrase took a national turn. By the mid-1980s, the term was appearing in a few Washington Post holiday advertisements and an occasional newspaper editorial. Three "spellings" of the advertising holiday ensued—one without an apostrophe and two promoting a floating apostrophe. The Associated Press stylebook placed the apostrophe between the "t" and "s" ("President's Day"), while grammatical purists positioned the apostrophe after the "s" believing Presidents' deferred the day to the "many" rather than one singular "President. "

Advertising had its effects on various calendar manufacturers who, determining their own spelling, began substituting Presidents' Day for the real thing. Eventually, when printed in the newspaper or seen on the calendar, few gave thought to its accuracy.

By George, IT IS Washington's Birthday, Part 2

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).

Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.

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