Even though President’s Day, Feb. 17, is officially to honor all of our former and present U.S. presidents, most everyone thinks of it as a commemoration of our two most popular and best known presidents, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, the first and 16th. In fact, in some areas of the country it’s still known as Washington/Lincoln Day.
It’s pretty safe to say that Washington was so greatly revered that he was actually a legend in his own time. Parades, balls and parties were given in his honor on his birthday as early as 1791. And shortly after his death in late 1799, Congress passed a resolution that Feb. 22, 1800 should be an official day of mourning.
Washington’s birthday was observed in a variety of ways throughout the country. The most important and longest celebration occurred in 1932, marking the 200th anniversary of his birth. Congress appointed a special commission to plan a program which lasted from Feb. 22 to Thanksgiving. During that period a dozen stamps were issued by the U.S. Post Office in a variety of denominations with the first president’s portrait.
The initial celebration of Lincoln’s birthday took place on February 12, 1866 (he died in 1865) when President Andrew Johnson met with his cabinet, Supreme Court Justices, Congressmen, diplomats, military officers and others to honor the late president. The Marine Corps band played; there was a prayer and eulogies by the president of the Senate and others who spoke eloquently on the Great Emancipator.
In 1891 it was suggested that Lincoln’s birth date be made a national anniversary. Nothing was done, however, until the following year when Illinois declared Feb. 12 a legal holiday and a few other states followed its example.
Technically, there are no national holidays in the United States. Each state has jurisdiction over its own holidays and designates them either by passing legislation or by executive proclamation. In practice, however, most states observe Federal legal public holidays even though the President and Congress can legally designate holidays only for the District of Columbia and for federal employees.
In 1971, Feb. 11 to be exact, President Richard M. Nixon, by executive order, placed into the U.S. Code in Title V, Section 7, number 11,582, the Monday Holiday Law stating that all holidays falling on the weekend would be observed by government employees on the following Monday. Thus, Washington’s birthday was readjusted to the third Monday of February.
Enactment of this order, in effect, makes it easy to forget the actual date of birth of the Father of Our Country. The name of the holiday was later changed to President’s Day to include Lincoln, whose birthday also falls in February, and all the other former presidents.
Unfortunately President’s Day has become little more than a day for bank employees, court house officials and federal workers to sleep in and for retail establishments to hold “once-a-year sales events.”
Even though the day never evokes the same emotions and celebrations as Independence Day and Memorial Day, it might be a good idea for all of us to reflect at least a moment or two on the towering accomplishments made by these two outstanding individuals toward the development of this great country.