By: Robert B. George, Esquire

Presidents’ Day, which is officially George Washington’s Birthday at the federal government level, is a holiday in the United States celebrated every year on the third Monday in February.

The origin of Presidents’ Day can be traced back to the 1880’s, when the birthday of George Washington on February 22 was first celebrated as a federal holiday. Following the death of George Washington in 1799, his birthday became an annual day of remembrance. While Washington’s Birthday was an unofficial observance for most of the 1800s, it was not until the late 1870’s that it became a federal holiday. At that time, Senator Stephen 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. At the time, Washington’s Birthday joined four other nationally recognized federal bank holidays – Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving, and was the first to celebrate the life of an individual American. 

Presidents’ Day is now celebrated to honor all of those who served as Presidents of the United States and, since about 1879, has been the Federal holiday specifically honoring our Founding Father – George Washington, who, among other notable achievements, led the Continental Army to victory in the American Revolutionary Ward, presided at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, and was the first President of the United States of America.

In 1968 Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Bill, which moved a number of Federal holidays to Mondays. This change was intended to schedule certain holidays so that workers had a number of long weekends throughout the year, but it was opposed by those who believed that those holidays should be celebrated on the dates they actually commemorate. An early draft of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act would have renamed the holiday as “Presidents’ Day” to honor the birthdays of both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, which is said to explain why the chosen date falls between each of their birthdays.

While Lincoln’s birthday was celebrated in many states, it was never an official Federal holiday, and for many years, George Washington’s birthday as well as Abraham Lincoln’s birthday were celebrated as separate holidays to honor our first and sixteenth Presidents, whom many consider to be the most famous of all the Presidents.  However, with the passing of the Uniform Federal Holidays Act, the two holidays were combined into one Presidents’ Day. 

During debate on the Bill, it was further proposed and argued that Washington’s Birthday be renamed Presidents’ Day so as to honor the birthdays of both George Washington (February 22, 1732) as well as Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809). However, this proposal failed, and the Bill was voted on and signed into law on June 28, 1968, thereby keeping the name as “Washington’s Birthday”. After the bill went into effect in 1971, however, Presidents’ Day became the commonly accepted name, due in part to retailers’ use of that name to promote sales and the holiday’s proximity to Lincoln’s birthday.

By the mid-1980s, with this push from advertisers/marketers seizing upon the opportunity to play up the three-day weekends, the term “Presidents’ Day” began its public appearance as “Presidents’ Day” bargains were advertised at stores around the Country.

The shift to “Presidents’ Day” become commonplace in the early 2000s, by which time as many as half of the 50 states had changed the holiday’s name to Presidents’ Day on their calendars.

The Law Firm of DiOrio & Sereni, LLP is a full-service law firm in Media, Delaware County, Pennsylvania. We strive to help people, businesses and institutions throughout Southeastern Pennsylvania solve legal problems – and even prevent legal problems before they occur. To learn more about the full range of our specific practice areas, please visit www.dioriosereni.com or contact Robert B. George, Esquire at 610-565-5700 or at [email protected].


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