History of Presidents Day: More than just Washington and Lincoln?

Presidents Day


During my lifetime, two American holidays were consolidated into one. In 1971, a day between Lincoln’s Birthday on February 12 and Washington’s Birthday on February 22 became a single holiday, Presidents Day. It is alternately spelled President’s Day or Presidents’ Day – to be observed on the third Monday in February to honor all the past Presidents of the United States and to get a three-day weekend.


Presidents Day History

When I was a schoolchild, both Washington’s and Lincoln’s pictures were typically displayed prominently in schoolrooms. Schoolchildren in many states have felt cheated out of an extra day off school ever since, with the two Presidents’ birthdays being combined into only one holiday. Is this a way of consolidating holidays for advertisers for “Presidents Day Sales?” Indeed, some state and local governments observe it as Presidents Day. The Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1971 established more three-day weekends.

Nevertheless, U.S. Federal employees still observe Washington’s Birthday, though it rarely falls on Washington’s actual birthday. His birthday was officially recognized as a holiday back in 1885. Lincoln’s Birthday on February 12 is not a Federal holiday, though some states observe it, going back to 1873 or 1874 in Buffalo, NY.


George Washington

President WashingtonEven during his lifetime, the Virginia native was known as “the father of his country,” though, between him and Lincoln, Abraham looked more like the father, and George’s long hair made him look more like the mother. Nevertheless, George was a natural leader, standing 6′ 2″ among troops that stood 5′ 9″.

He appeared at the Continental Congress in his uniform, the natural choice for a military leader. Many of the Founding Fathers graduated from the finest colleges in the land —

  • Jefferson and Monroe went to William and Mary
  • Adams and Hancock went to Harvard
  • Madison went to Princeton (College of New Jersey)
  • Jay, Livingston, and Hamilton went to Columbia (King’s College)
  • But Washington went to War.

He had experience fighting for the English King George III in the French and Indian War in America. Still, the American Revolutionary War saw him fighting for independence against the same King he had earlier served. Washington stood between two periods of American history: the end of the Colonial Period and the beginning of the National Period. He served only two terms as President of the new United States of America, though many would have supported his rule for life. Napoleon Bonaparte of France was amazed that Washington would step down when he didn’t need to.


Abraham Lincoln

President LincolnThe tallest American President at 6′ 4″, the Kentucky native is one of the most popular, best-remembered, and most often written-about Presidents in American history. He, too, served during a time of bitter warfare, again with brother fighting brother and neighbor fighting neighbor, this time though during the American Civil War, or what became known in the South as the War Between the States.

While this great conflagration had many economic and political causes, Lincoln’s name remains associated with the abolition of slavery. Lincoln, like Washington before him, connected two periods of American history. In Lincoln’s case, he saw the end of the National Period and the very beginnings of the Modern Period, which would follow the Civil War.

US-war-deathsThese two men presided over two great wars, one for the freedom of independent government, the other for a different kind of freedom. But about the same number of Americans died in the Civil War as all other wars Americans were ever involved in — because we count the dead on both sides. Counting those who died on battlefields combined with those who died of disease and infection during the War accounted for over 4% of the American population.


Presidents Day: Two Great Ones

The first man, who served as the first president when he might have been king, is remembered for his selfless deeds. The other for his extraordinary words that began to heal a nation after the largest battle ever fought on American soil. As Lincoln recognized those who fought and died at the Battle of Gettysburg, he concluded:

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion, that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people by the people for the people shall not perish from the earth.


Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian


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About billpetro

Bill Petro writes articles on history, technology, pop culture, and travel. He has been a technology sales enablement executive with extensive experience in Cloud Computing, Automation, Data Center, Information Storage, Big Data/Analytics, Mobile, and Social technologies.


  1. Thomas on January 12, 2011 at 11:11 am

    There is a federally observed holiday in the United States held on the third Monday of February. This holiday, is Washington’s Birthday.

    While many American’s call this day “Presidents’ Day”, that is not the US Government’s name for this holiday.

    Here is a list of Federally observed holidays:

  2. Rosemary Hossenlopp on February 17, 2012 at 6:32 pm

    It is truly amazing the thought leadership which these men provided; without speech writers, PR agency or polling campaigns. Courage of opinion and ability to communicate is a characteristic of great leaders.

    • Bill Petro on February 18, 2012 at 4:11 pm

      Thanks for the comment Rosemary. The third president, Thomas Jefferson, was not a strong public speaker. But when he took up the pen, he could write American scripture.

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