Michael Bavalsky: Why We Celebrate Presidents' Day on Mondays

Roundup: Talking About History

[Mr. Bavalsky is an HNN intern and a student at Brooklyn Studio Secondary School.]

In 1885, President Chester Arthur established Washington's Birthday as a day to honor "the father of our country." But Washington was far from the only president to make a lasting mark on the United States. So, in the 1950s, a reformer named Harold Stonebridge Fischer created the Presidents' Day National Committee and proclaimed himself its executive director. Over the next two decades, he lobbied to make the all-encompassing Presidents' Day a federal holiday so as to include Abrahahm Lincoln, another giant of the American past. Fischer wanted the day to be on March 4, the original presidential inauguration day. However, the resolution was defeated because some in the Senate Judiciary Committee were concerned that two federal holidays so close together would be too expensive for the government. Thus, the name of the holiday has never been officially changed, no matter what your calendar may say. ("Presidents' Day" sales have become a popular term among car and mattress salesman, and this apocryphal holiday soon encouraged the public consciousness and the lexicon of the American people.)

Nevertheless, some state governors liked the idea and proclaimed March 4 Presidents' Day, though this declaration had no legal force as only the federal government can make federal holidays.

Up through 1970, Washington's Birthday was observed on the first president's birthday, February 22, regardless of the day of the week on which it fell. That year, Congress began to debate the relative virtue of moving several stand-alone holidays to nearby Mondays. Some argued that a standard day would be less disruptive for the government workforce, would minimize overtime, and would be equally beneficial to business workforces. There was also the lure of increased retail sales and happier citizens who would enjoy three-day weekends, and so the bill passed. On January 1, 1971, the new Uniform Monday Holiday Act shifted Washington's Birthday Holiday from his actual birthday to the third Monday in February.

We should not forget, however, that another president's birthday is celebrated in February —that of Ronald Wilson Reagan, on February 6. In fact, this year marked the one hundredth anniversary of his birth. And, so, in every century we have a luminary, transformative president born on a February day—Washington in the eighteenth century, Lincoln in the nineteenth, and Reagan in the twentieth. Only time can tell what this century will bring.

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