There’s No Such Thing As Presidents Day — So Stop Saying It, Already

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This coming Monday we will mark a state and federal holiday. To judge from car ads, calendars, and common conversation, more and more people have no idea what it is.

Those old enough to remember a simpler time will recall that the third Monday in February was known as Washington’s Birthday.

Well, news flash to the modern generation: It still is.

So why do we keep hearing about something called “Presidents Day”?

It’s a curious story.

To tell it, let’s start with a basic principle: There is no such thing in the United States as a national holiday. That’s because we have no national government.

We have state governments, with authority over a state; and we have what is supposed to be a narrowly defined federal government, with authority over matters that the states can’t rightly see to themselves.

Both levels of government have the ability to proclaim holidays that close government offices while still paying government employees. Businesses and individuals may follow these holidays or ignore them as they wish. (With the exception that state governments require some businesses to pay employees extra money if they work on certain legally defined holidays.)

In the beginning there were no federal holidays. There weren’t many federal employees, because there wasn’t much of a federal government. And people tended to work on every day except Sunday, regardless of what else was going on.

Then, in 1870, Congress enacted four paid-time-off holidays for federal employees who worked in the District of Columbia. They were: New Year’s Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.

In 1879, Congress added February 22 to commemorate the birthday of our first president, George Washington. (Other holidays were added later.)

Things got a little muddled in 1968, when Congress decided to create more three-day weekends. The Washington’s Birthday observance got moved from the actual date of his birth (February 22) to the third Monday of the month of his birth. (Unfortunately, the Washington’s Birthday observance now can never occur on the day of his birth, since when February 22 falls on a Monday it is the fourth Monday in February.)

A lot of people think that when the date of the Washington’s Birthday holiday got moved the name of it also got changed. But it’s not true.

Jacob R. Straus of the Congressional Research Service clarifies this point in a May 2014 article called “Federal Holidays:  Evolution and Current Practices”:

“Contrary to popular belief, neither the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, nor any subsequent action by Congress or the President, mandated that the name of the holiday observed by federal employees in February be changed from Washington’s Birthday to Presidents Day.”

So why do many people think it’s called Presidents Day?

There are a few factors at work. First, Abraham Lincoln’s birthday (February 12) is only 10 days before Washington’s, and many people think of the two presidents together, one being known as the father of our country and the other being known as the savior of the union. In some quarters some years ago there was a move to combine the two birthdays into one holiday, to be called Presidents Day in honor of the two of them.

In most places that has never happened, though there appear to be a few where it did.

Massachusetts isn’t one of them. State law (Chapter 6, Section 12T) requires the governor to proclaim the third Monday in February as “Washington’s Day.” (Another statute defines the third Monday in February as a state holiday, without saying what it’s for. But if you read both, it’s clear that the state holiday honors George Washington’s birthday, and not anything else.)

In the early 1950s, elsewhere there was a harebrained scheme to create a distinct holiday simply honoring presidents, apparently for their ability to get a majority of votes in the Electoral College. That appears to be where this idea of a broader “Presidents Day” got started.

This notion, though not officially adopted in most places in the country, has gotten conflated with Washington’s Birthday in some jurisdictions. And it’s the sinister aspect of what you might otherwise think of as a lighthearted trip down history lane.

By calling it “Presidents Day,” many people nowadays imagine that we are honoring all the chief executives of the federal government. So, apparently, we are all supposed to pretend to be deeply moved by the accomplishments and character of the likes of, say, Millard Fillmore, James Buchanan, and Bill Clinton.

But we’re not, and we aren’t.

The reason you probably can’t remember the names and major events of many of our 45 presidents is that they aren’t memorable. There’s no reason to honor most of them.

Even more important:  We elect presidents, not kings. A president is the temporary leader of the federal government, not the embodiment of the nation.

This approaching holiday is meant to commemorate the one indispensable man in the creation of our country. George Washington made winning independence possible; and as a uniquely unifying figure, he made our federal system work.

Happy 285th birthday, General, even if it’s a little early.