How Presidents' Day Came to Be

How Presidents' Day Came to Be
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Four U.S. chief executives were born in February: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan and William Henry Harrison. The latter, who served only 32 days in office, is the anomaly on that list. Reagan was one of the 20th century’s most successful presidents, Lincoln saved the Union, and, George Washington’s unofficial moniker—“Father of Our Country”—needs no explication.

But how the third Monday in February came to be a stand-in for all chief executives is an idiosyncratic tale of governance all its own. In 1879, the 45th Congress decided to make official what Americans already celebrated in their hearts: Washington's birthday, February 22, was designated a bank holiday, and a federal holiday. It joined New Year’s Day, July 4, Thanksgiving, and Christmas as days in which federal workers in the District of Columbia (and, soon thereafter, the rest of the government) had the day off.

Most school districts, which set their own calendars, already observed the day. In the North, Midwest, and Far West, many of them also observed Lincoln’s birthday, February 12, as a holiday. Four score and seven years later, the movement to move these holidays to Mondays—for purposes of making three-day weekends—began to gather steam.

By 1968, the arguments advanced in Congress for the change were primarily both emotional and economic, but rarely historical. History and regional pride, not to mention some fuzzy math, nearly derailed the idea for Presidents’ Day, however.

Fearing that George Washington’s birthday would get lost in the shuffle, several members of Congress balked. “If we do this, 10 years from now our schoolchildren will not know or care when George Washington was born,” protested Rep. Dan Heflin Kuykendall of Tennessee. “They will know that in the middle of February they will have a three-day weekend for some reason.”

The Virginia congressional delegation was particularly sensitive on this point—George Washington being a native son and all—and couldn’t quite shake the feeling that the principal sponsor of the legislation, Rep. Robert N. McClory, a Republican from the Chicago suburbs, was carrying water for Illinois’ favorite son, Abe Lincoln.

McClory countered this suspicion with a dubious argument: “Indeed, his [Washington's] birthday will be celebrated frequently on February 22, which in many cases will be the third Monday in February,” he told the Virginians. “It will also be celebrated on February 23, just as it is at the present time when February 22 falls on the Sunday preceding.”

McClory was a good and decent man—and an independent-minded one, as he would later prove while serving on the House Judiciary Committee during the Watergate scandal—but math was not his strong suit. It fell to Rep. Richard Harding Poff, a Virginia Democrat, to point out that this did not compute.

“Now what that really means is never again will the birthday of the Father of our Country be observed on February 22,” Poff pointed out, “because the third Monday will always fall between the 15th of February and the 21st of February.”

Ultimately, McClory and the other sponsors of the bill dropped the idea of renaming Washington’s birthday “Presidents’ Day”—although it has happened organically in the meantime—and concentrated more on the real reasons for the change: economics.

The three-day weekend was favored by federal workers, private sector labor unions, the National Association of Manufacturers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and an array of tourist-related industries and trade associations. It was even pro-family, its backers proclaimed. It was win-win-win.

To be sure, there were prescient naysayers, including Rep. Harold Gross, an Iowa Republican. “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,” he predicted. “They will work at selling merchandise.”

“We have labor and management joined together in support of this legislation, which is a unique situation,” countered McClory. “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.”

A majority of his colleagues agreed, and the legislation moving Veterans Day, Memorial Day, and Washington’s birthday to a designated Monday—and adding another holiday, Columbus Day—was passed by Congress.

President Lyndon Johnson signed the bill on June 28, 1968, with a flourish, insisting that it would “help Americans to enjoy more fully the country that is their magnificent heritage.”

“It will also aid the work of government,” Johnson added, “and bring new efficiency to our economy.” 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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