According to 6103(a) of title 5 of the United States Code, the following are the legal public holidays and the dates on which they are to be observed:
New Year’s Day, January 1.
Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., the third Monday in January.
Washington’s Birthday, the third Monday in February.
Memorial Day, the last Monday in May.
Independence Day, July 4.
Labor Day, the first Monday in September.
Columbus Day, the second Monday in October.
Veterans Day, November 11.
Thanksgiving Day, the fourth Thursday in November.
Christmas Day, December 25.
Check and check again, and one of the first things you might notice is that Presidents’ Day is not a holiday. The day we commonly refer to as “Presidents’ Day” is legally a commemoration of George Washington’s birthday, February 22. Ironically, due to 1971 Uniform Monday Holiday Act, the holiday falls between February 15-21, so the holiday will never actually fall upon the birthday of America’s first president.
The holiday was created in 1879 to honor the only man unanimously elected by the electoral college — twice. George Washington rightly deserves to be honored each year, not only for leading the Continental Army against the British in the American Revolution, but also for leading the nation in its fledgling years and establishing a set of norms for the presidency. If the United States celebrated any president, it would be George Washington, though a good argument could be made for Abraham Lincoln.
Coincidentally, Abraham Lincoln’s birthday falls ten days before Washington’s, which presents a tempting option for legislators eager to honor arguably one of the three greatest presidents. Though there was a push to honor the two men with one holiday, the tide shifted toward honoring all the presidents in one swoop instead.
In 1951, Harold Stonebridge Fischer formed the President’s Day National Committee to create a holiday for the office of the presidency. This plan failed to change the federal designation of the holiday, but a number of states have since adopted Presidents’ Day (16 states), President’s Day (five states), Lincoln/Washington/Presidents’ Day (Arizona), George Washington/Thomas Jefferson Birthday (Alabama), Washington and Lincoln Day (Utah), and a number of other titles. Nine states have discarded the holiday and make no effort to celebrate any president at all.
In celebrating the office of the presidency, you’re celebrating 44 men who experienced varying levels of effectiveness. Presidents’ Day makes no distinction between those who led the nation through times of stress (FDR and the Great Depression), war (Lincoln), and crisis (Reagan and the Cold War); and those who were straight up ineffective (Carter), criminally paranoid (Nixon), or just plain terrible (Harding).
Legally speaking, somebody has to be president. So does that make it worthy of a holiday? The signers of the Declaration of Independence were not legally compelled to write their names. Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t elected to be a leader of the Civil Rights movement. Members of the armed forces were not compelled to serve (except those times when they were). Jesus didn’t mean to be born (okay, maybe he was, but that’s a theological argument for another time). Sure, they get elected to the position (most of the time), but even that has a lot to do with intra-party politics. And besides that, an election only serves as the set-up to a president’s primary mission — namely to govern, something a bunch of them have done pretty poorly.
The holidays we celebrate should be for great acts, people, and occasions that should be honored by Americans. We do a great job for most of them, except the one on the third Monday of February.
Washington’s Birthday might be the biggest sham of all holidays, not because of the existence of the day itself, but because of how Americans celebrate it. Washington has fallen so far from memory that most people only think of him as being the guy on the quarter and one dollar bill, denominations of currency arguably useful only for laundry and vending machines. A celebration for the man who is largely responsible for America has been replaced by a token day to acknowledge 44 men.
Of course, that does obscure the holiday’s one real purpose: car sales.
image created by Jeremy Shea, drawn from Library of Congress