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No lie: It's Washington's Birthday, not Presidents Day

February 20, 2012|By Steve Padilla
  • Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze's 1851 painting "Washington Crossing the Delaware" forms a backdrop at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze's 1851 painting "Washington Crossing… (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty…)

Like George Washington, we cannot tell a lie, so we must share a brutal truth. This is not Presidents Day.

Nor is it a national holiday designed to honor Abraham Lincoln along with Washington.

On the federal calendar, at least, Monday is still Washington’s birthday.

In fact, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968 — which moved the observance of Washington’s birthday from Feb. 22 to the third Monday in February — does not name Lincoln at all. Nor does it mention Presidents Day, Presidents' Day or even President's Day

So how did we end up with Presidents Day?

Confusion might be the easiest answer. Though Lincoln’s birthday, Feb. 12, was never a federal holiday, it was celebrated in some jurisdictions. When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, many people surmised — incorrectly — that it was to jointly honor both the Father of His Country and the Great Emancipator.

Adding to the perception is the fact that Lincoln’s birthday is a holiday in some locales and that some jurisdictions do honor both presidents today. Toss in ads screaming “Presidents Day Sale!” and the confusion spreads.

The Monday Holiday Act took effect in 1971. Along with moving Washington’s birthday, it created three-day holidays for Memorial Day, which had been celebrated May 30, and Veterans Day, which had been observed on Nov. 11.

The legislation did not please all. According to a United Press International report from 1968, Rep. James A. Haley (D-Fla.) called it “one of the most ridiculous bills ever brought before Congress.”

In an editorial, the Washington Post harrumphed: “Probably there is something to be said for the addition of a Monday holiday occasionally to the Saturday-Sunday weekend. But why should history be distorted in the process?”

A search of Los Angeles Times archives turned up a story from January 1968 by pollster Louis Harris, who wrote that the Harris Survey found that Americans opposed the three-day holiday bill 64% to 31%. (The brief story did not say how many people were polled.)

Harris said the survey showed that federal holidays, including Memorial Day, Veterans Day and Washington’s Birthday, “all have special meaning in their own right and are not looked upon as merely ‘another day off.’” 

Harris predicted that with all the other issues roiling the country in the turbulent '60s — the Vietnam War, racial strife, cultural change — Congress would not risk messing with the holidays. Well, Congress risked it.

These days some observers of American culture say that the law did indeed transform days packed with meaning into days to shop, barbecue or watch "Twilight Zone" marathons on cable.

In the case of Washington and Lincoln, Presidents Day reflects “a lack of interest in the men themselves and the lessons they can teach us,” Matthew Dennis, a professor of history and environmental studies at the University of Oregon, said in an interview.

Dennis explored the origins and meanings of American holidays in the book “Red, White and Blue Letter Days: An American Calendar.” Dennis writes that the public's passion for Washington and Lincoln has diminished for various reasons: the passage of time, their overexposure, and the difficulty of relating them to problems of modern life, such as environmental pollution and the global economy. “Presidents’ Day did not precipitate such decline; it expresses it,” he writes.

Washington has many lessons for the current age, Dennis told The Times. Washington clearly was a good leader and charismatic, with an admirable combination of dignity and integrity.

In the current cynical age, Dennis said, there’s a tendency to tear down heroes. Critics will note that Washington owned slaves and they'll then attack his character and accomplishments overall. Dennis advises a more balanced approach when assessing heroes — acknowledge the faults but honor the qualities and actions that indeed merit praise.

As for “Washington’s Birthday,” about a decade ago some members of Congress tried to restore the name to its proper place in American discourse.

They introduced the “Washington-Lincoln Recognition Act of 2001,” which called on all federal officials and entities to refer to the day as Washington’s Birthday. It also called on the president to issue an annual proclamation recognizing the anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, and it urged Americans to observe the day with “appropriate ceremonies and activities.”

The bill never got out of committee.

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