For many Americans, tomorrow’s holiday is known as “Presidents Day.”
As for me, I prefer to call it “Washington’s Birthday.” How it morphed from honoring the “Father of our Country,” who was lauded as “First in War, First in Peace, and First in the Hearts of his Country Men,” is a tawdry tale. Washington’s Birthday was first established in 1885 to recognize President George Washington, hero of our American Revolution and first President of the United States of America.
Washington’s Birthday was observed unofficially for most of the 1800s. It became an a federal holiday in the late 1870s, thanks to Sen. Steven Dorsey of Arkansas, who first proposed it. In 1879, President Rutherford B. Hayes signed the bill into law.
While recognition of Washington’s Birthday initially pertained only to the District of Columbia, in 1885, the holiday was expanded to our entire nation. Washington’s Birthday became the fifth nationally recognized federal bank holiday, along with Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving. It was also the first to celebrate the life of an individual American. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which was signed into law in 1983, became the second to do so.
The shift from Washington’s Birthday to Presidents Day started in the late 1960s with a Senate bill to be called the “Uniform Monday Holiday Act.” The intent of the bill was to combine the celebration of several federal holidays from specific dates into a series of predetermined Mondays. It would mean another three-day weekend for our nation’s workers and a boon for big business and labor unions.
The Uniform Monday Holiday Act was controversial then, and rightly so. Still, the essence of it took effect officially in 1971, with an executive order from President Richard Nixon. Thus, Washington’s Birthday was shifted from the fixed date of Feb. 22 to the third Monday of February.
Although Nixon’s executive order clearly called the newly positioned holiday “Washington’s Birthday,” marketeers nation-wide were quick to pounce upon the opportunity to exploit the three-day weekend with sales aplenty. Presidents Day bargains were hawked at stores around America. And the crass commercialism continues unabated in 2018.
Meanwhile, the legacy of President George Washington continues to fade into the mists of the past. Despite the fact he was Founding Father, Commander in Chief of the Continental Army during our American Revolution and the first President of the United States, he is now generically relegated to the dustbin of history, alongside lesser men and more than few scoundrels.
By the way, Washington’s Birthday is still officially honored and recognized by the federal government. And that’s good enough for me.
Retired Army Col. Thomas B. Vaughn can be reached at email@example.com.