A History of President’s Day

A History of Presidents Day

Molly Oravsky, Sr. High Writer

TLDR; President’s Day is a federally recognized holiday, established in 1879 to honor George Washington, always to be celebrated on the 3rd Monday of February. Originally, it was just called “Washington Day” or something along the lines of that, but it became known as “President’s Day” after the 1971 “Uniform Monday Holiday Act” which was designed to make more 3-day weekends for blue-collar workers. President’s Day as a result of this became a way to honor all presidents, despite many states having their own holidays for certain presidents already.


President’s Day is a holiday cherished by many Americans, for giving them a day off. Most people know that it’s president Gerorge Washington’s birthday, however there is so much more to know about this holiday than just getting a day off. 

President’s Day dates back to 1800, following George Washington’s death, his birthday which is February 22 became a day of remembrance. Due to many Americans believing that Washington forever will be the most important person in American history, regardless of if that still holds true today, many other things were done to recognize him. Events like the centennial of his birthday in 1832 or the construction of the Washington Monument in 1848 caused widespread national outbreaks of celebration. However, Washington’s Birthday was not observed by Americans until the 1800’s, and it did not become an officially federally recognized holiday until 1879 when president Rutherford B. Hayes signed it into law. At the time, this only applied to the District of Columbia, but it quickly spread across the country and became just a deified as New Year’s Day, The Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and New Year’s Day. Martin Luther King Day was the second federal holiday signed into law to recognize a national figure.

However, as we know today it is no longer just Washington Day, it is President’s Day, and the shift between the two was a very interesting Law that was designed to help Blue Collar Workers Across the United States. We have the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1971, which was an attempt to switch several federal holidays to be observed on Mondays instead of specific dates to give more 3 day weekends to the national workers. This was designed to help more people want to go to work by giving them periodical extended weekends to boost morale, since just not showing up for work was a huge national issue at the time. Some people, however, believed this bill would cause the holidays to lose their meaning and simply turn them into a day off, rather than a way to observe national history. Unfortunately, the critics could not compete though because this bill had massive support from both the private sector and labor unions. The act also combined Lincoln’s birthday on February 12 with Washington’s birthday on the 22. This was not very controversial due to the fact that at this point Lincoln’s birthday was not a federally recognized holiday, but only a holiday recognized by a few states. 

The Act passed and was signed into law by president Richard M. Nixon, shifting Washington’s birthday, Columbus day, Memorial Day, and Veteran’s Day to Mondays. However this shift means that now the President’s Day holiday never falls on any president’s birthday of the 4 born in February; George Washington, William Henry Harrison, Abraham Lincoln, and Ronald Regan. However the shift in dates led most people to believe that they were now supposed to honor both Washington and Lincoln on this day, with some states seizing the opportunity to honor more people as well such as Daisy Gatson Bates or Thomas Jefferson. Most people today see is as a way to honor all presidential achievements.

Needless to say, there is a very wide observance of people who are celebrated on President’s Day. Due to the Uniform Monday Act, by the mid 1980’s most people recognized the 3rd Monday in February no longer as Washington’s birthday but as President’s Day. By the early 2000’s half of the states had officially changed the name in their state calendars. Some congressional measures were attempted to restore the holiday to just commemorate Lincoln and Washington, however they were unsuccessful. 

Traditionally, President’s Day celebrations are nothing more than a patriotic observance. It is used by some for patriotic reenactments, celebrations, and other events. It is unfortunately known by most today as just being a day off, however there is a truly interesting history lying beneath the surface.