If you’re of a certain age, you can probably remember the heady days before Executive Order 11582 was issued by Pres. Richard Nixon on February 11, 1971. In those freewheeling days, federal workers, school children, bank workers and a few other lucky souls typically got two holidays in the diminutive month of February: Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on the 12th and George Washington’s birthday on the 22nd. Combine all that with leftover Valentine’s candy and white sales — Katy bar the door!
Then somewhere in the 1950s, organizations like the National Association of Travel Organizations began to advocate for a combined presidential birthday — to be celebrated on the third Monday of each February. They also wanted to shift Memorial Day to the fourth Monday in May, Independence Day to the first Monday in July and Veterans Day to the second Monday in November.
Historians correctly note that the watershed event in these discussions came in the form of the Uniform Holidays Bill of 1968 (Public Law 90-363). The intent of the legislation was to simplify the scheduling of national observances — and not coincidentally to create more three day weekends for federal employees. The Act moved Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day and Veterans day to specified Mondays as well as creating a new Monday holiday — Columbus Day (Veterans Day was eventually restored to November 11).
While all of this seems to have largely sorted itself out to a reasonable end, there’s still the matter of Washington’s true birthday. In all the bureaucratic calendar gerrymandering, the Father of Our Country probably wouldn’t know when to blow out his candles. Throughout the 19th century, Washington’s birthday was celebrated across the land. The observance was made an official federal holiday in 1885 when Pres. Chester A. Arthur signed a bill declaring as much. Here’s where it gets tricky though. Washington was actually born on February 11th under the then-in-use Julian calendar, but his birthday was rechristened as February 22nd under the Gregorian calendar adopted in 1752. What’s worse, as per UHB, Washington’s Birthday could never fall on Washington’s actual birthday.
As the saying goes, misery loves company. In the holiday shuffle, Abe Lincoln comes out the biggest loser. As above, on February 11, 1971, Pres. Richard Nixon issued
Executive Order 11582. This order defined the third Monday as a national holiday identified as “Washington’s Birthday.” Lincoln is not mentioned. His natal anniversary is officially stricken from the books. Of course, Lincoln’s birthday was never actually a designated as a federal holiday.
Accordingly, Presidents Day (or Presidents’ Day or even President’s Day) is not a “real thing,” per se. Call it what you will, the fed knows differently … it’s Washington’s Birthday.
This solution was unsatisfactory to many in Congress. On February 6, 2001, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland, along with five cosponsors, introduced H. R. 420 a bill, “To recognize the birthdays of Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.”
Titled as the “Washington-Lincoln Recognition Act of 2001,” the bill read in part: “The legal public holiday known as Washington’s Birthday, as specified in section 6103 of title 5, United States Code, shall be referred to by that name and no other…” this was followed by Sec. 3. Proclamation on Lincoln’s Birthday, “The Congress requests that the President issue a proclamation each year recognizing the anniversary of the birth of President Abraham Lincoln and calling upon the people of the United States to observe such anniversary with appropriate ceremonies and activities.”
The proposal sank like a rock. It died without ever coming to vote. Much like the late comedian Red Button’s famous “never got a dinner” shtick, looks like poor ol’ Lincoln may never get a birthday.