Celebrating America's Commanders in Chief

TR Staff
Staff Writer

By Joseph Kjos
Celebrate Presidents Day on February 18th—or celebrate George Washington's Birthday. Or is it Lincoln’s? This holiday has a muddled history of changing dates, mixed-up designations, and enough confusion that even the Father of the Nation would find difficulty being honest about it. Though it's popularly known as President's day, those who have reservations of celebrating every president may find comfort in the clarification that the official holiday is Washington's Birthday.
George Washington's birthday is actually February 22nd, and this date was first named a national holiday by the 21st president, Chester A. Arthur, in 1885. It is the fifth federally recognized holiday in this country's history and the first to celebrate an individual. However, the nation had been celebrating Washington's birthday even before its official designation. 1832 would have been his one hundredth birthday, and February 22nd saw nationwide parades and a procession in the capital attended by then President John Quincy Adams. Massachusetts was the first state to name it a holiday in 1856 and several states followed. The Capitol added it as a federal holiday in 1879. In 1932, on Washington's 200th birthday, his home estate at Mount Vernon was opened to the public. President Herbert Hoover also recognized the occasion by issuing an executive order that extended Washington's legacy by rechristening the oldest military medal, created by Washington: the Purple Heart.
The expansion of the holiday to include other presidents began with the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1971, which was designed to increase the amount of three-day weekends. The Act was signed into law by Richard Nixon, and it moved to a Monday date Labor Day, Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and Washington's Birthday. Now falling on the third Monday of every February, the new date occurs early to catch the actual date of Washington's birth, but it opened the door to also recognize the contributions of other presidents. Celebrating Abraham Lincoln's Birthday along with Washington's began around this time, since Lincoln's birthday is February 12th. February also holds the birthdays of presidents William Henry Harrison and Ronald Reagan.
The United States has had 45 presidents and not all have been as outstanding as Washington or Lincoln. Some have lead this country down roads it may never have been intended to go, but we look back on our Commanders in Chief with remembrance of how they've shaped this country in its infancy and led it to triumph through its most trying times.
Presidents Day gives us a day off of work and an opportunity to learn more about why many of these men have been celebrated since their departure from office. Perhaps by picking up some of their principles on personal liberty, the role of government, their importance and how they were structured to be maintained and protected—and the danger of their corrosion—we move forward with a more united understanding of what kind of leaders we want to lead us into the future.