The story of Presidents' Day began in 1800. Following George Washington’s death in 1799, his February 22 birthday became a perennial day of remembrance.
An unofficial observance for most of the 1800s, Washington’s Birthday became a federal holiday in 1879. Initially, it applied only to the District of Columbia, but in 1885 it was expanded to the whole country. At the time, Washington’s Birthday joined four other national federal holidays—Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving—and was the first to celebrate the life of an individual American. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, signed into law in 1983, was the second.
The shift from Washington’s Birthday to Presidents' Day began in the late 1960s, when Congress proposed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. Championed by Senator Robert McClory of Illinois, this law moved the celebration of several federal holidays to a series of predetermined Mondays.
This was perceived as a novel way to create more three-day weekends for the nation’s workers, and a possibly a way that would reduce employee absenteeism and not interfere with an orderly workweek. While some argued dropping holidays from their stated dates would cheapen their meaning, the bill gained wide support from the private sector and labor unions. Retailers supported it as a surefire way to bolster holiday sales.
The Uniform Monday Holiday Act included a provision to combine the celebration of Washington’s birthday with that of Abraham Lincoln, which fell on February 12. Lincoln’s Birthday had long been a state holiday in places like Illinois, and many supported joining the two days as a way to give equal recognition to two of America’s most famous chief executives.
McClory was among the measure’s major proponents, and he even floated the idea of renaming the holiday Presidents' Day. This proved to be a point of contention for lawmakers from George Washington’s home state of Virginia, and the proposal was eventually dropped.
Nevertheless, the main piece of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act passed in 1968, officially effective in 1971 following an executive order from President Nixon. Washington’s Birthday was then shifted from the fixed date of February 22 to the third Monday of February. Columbus Day, Memorial Day and Veterans Day were also moved from their traditionally designated dates. (Due to widespread criticism, Veterans Day was returned to its original November 11 date in 1978.)
While Nixon’s order plainly called the newly placed holiday Washington’s Birthday, it was not long before the shift to Presidents' Day began.
The move away from February 22 led many to believe that the new date was intended to honor both Washington and Lincoln, as it now fell between their two birthdays. Marketers soon jumped at the opportunity to play up the three-day weekend with sales, and “Presidents' Day” bargains were advertised at stores around the country.
By the mid-1980s, Washington’s Birthday was known to many Americans as Presidents' Day. By the early 2000s, half the 50 states had changed the holiday’s name to Presidents' Day.
Some states have even chosen to customize the holiday by adding new figures to the celebration. Arkansas, for instance, celebrates Washington as well as civil rights activist Daisy Gatson Bates. Alabama, meanwhile, uses Presidents' Day to commemorate Washington and Thomas Jefferson (who was born in April).
Washington and Lincoln are still the two most recognized leaders, but Presidents' Day is now popularly seen as a day to recognize the lives and achievements of all of America’s chief executives. Some lawmakers object to this view, arguing that mingling Washington and Lincoln together with less successful presidents minimizes their legacies.
Congressional measures to restore Washington and Lincoln’s individual birthdays were proposed during the early 2000s, but all failed to gain much attention. For its part, the federal government has held fast to the original incarnation of the holiday as a celebration of the country’s first president. The third Monday in February is still listed on official calendars as Washington’s Birthday.