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Presidents’ Day? Nope, It’s Still Officially Called Washington’s Birthday, and Here’s Why.

By: Robert B. George, Esquire

We first learned in grade school about the life and work of George Washington, the first president of the United States. His first term as president was from 1789 to 1793, and his second term was from 1793 to 1797. Before becoming President, he played important roles in our military, including leading the American Continental Army to victory over the British in 1783. Washington is often regarded as the father of the United States of America and is one of our nation’s best-known politicians.

The likeness and name of Washington can still be seen in many places in the United States. There is the portrait of him and three other American presidents carved into Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota. His image is also used on our one dollar bill and our quarter-dollar coin. The capital of the United States – Washington D.C. – Washington State, and at least three universities are named after him.

February 22, which is the actual date of Washington’s birth in 1732, became a federal holiday in 1879.   However, as a result of a 1968 law known as the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which mandated that several federal holidays occur on Monday, we now celebrate Washington’s Birthday on the third Monday of February each year. (Incidentally, the third Monday in February can never fall on the 22nd, which means that the federal holiday will never take place on Washington’s actual birth date.)

Despite the holiday often being referred to as “Presidents’ Day”, as I see on my desk calendar as I write this blog, the official federal holiday continues to be known as “Washington’s Birthday.”  While he was still alive, people honored the occasion of Washington’s birthday with balls and banquets. The celebration continued after his death as a way to both remember and celebrate what America’s first president had done for our nation. 

But in 1968, U.S. Representative Robert McClory of Illinois – the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln – attempted to change the name of the holiday to “Presidents’ Day”.   That measure proved to be controversial for legislators from Virginia, Washington’s home state, and the proposal was soon dropped.  However, McClory did gain the concession of having the holiday celebrated on the third Monday in February, which falls between Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on February 12 and Washington’s birthday on February 22.  Consequently, many now view the federal holiday as a means to celebrate Washington and Lincoln, as well as America’s other Commanders-in-Chief, with many states actually now referring to this federal holiday as “Presidents’ Day” instead of its official name of “Washington’s Birthday.”  

Past Presidents have often recognized Washington’s Birthday with visits to Washington’s tomb, such as President Roosevelt did on Washington’s 211th birthday in 1943, and as President Reagan did on Washington’s 250th birthday in 1982.  During the Civil War, the Senate remembered Washington with a reading of his Farewell Address; by 1896, the reading of Washington’s Farewell Address in the Senate had become an annual event.  Upon his resignation from the Office of the President after two terms – even though the law did not require that limit at that time – Washington had set a precedent for the peaceful transfer of power that continues as a moral example to the free world.  And in corresponding his Farewell Address, Washington advised our new nation to keep the union together, to be wary of misrepresentations of political parties and factions, to keep debt to a minimum, and to govern morally.

By taking the time each year to observe the life and work of George Washington, we Americans have the opportunity to not only recognize his vast contributions toward the founding of our nation, but also to  reflect upon the difficult and tragic lessons that our nation has learned and continues to learn since then and to celebrate the immutable values that our nation must continue to strive to uphold – liberty and justice for all.  

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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