Celebrating George Washington’s Birthday

Monday is a holiday: “[T]o insure a minimum of five regularly recurring 3-day weekends each year for Federal employees.” Here is how this holiday evolved.

Monday, February 15, 2021 is another federal holiday. Most federal employees have the day off from work. They will still get paid. For most people, that may be the most important fact about the third Monday in February.

George Washington’s birthday was traditionally celebrated on February 22. That date was picked because it was his actual birthdate. In 1879, Arkansas Senator Steven Wallace Dorsey proposed Washington’s birthday be labeled as a federal holiday. It passed in Congress and President Rutherford B. Hayes signed it into law. Initially,it only applied to Washington, DC. It included the entire country by 1885.

That was the case until 1971. We no longer celebrate Washington’s birthday on February 22nd. Probably most people do not really care anymore since early American history is sometimes an afterthought in schools while we focus on more recent events instead of learning about a bunch of old dead white guys who have not been around for centuries.

The holiday became more popularly known as Presidents’ Day after it was moved to a new date with the Uniform Monday Holiday Act (Public Law 90-363 (82 Stat. 250)) ).

The decision to change the date of the holiday was a subject of debate in Congress. Some representatives believed moving the date would cheapen the purpose of the holiday. Others saw it as a way to not only give federal employees more time off but to make the celebrations more meaningful by having more time to celebrate. The bill passed. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed it in 1968. It became effective in 1971.

The official name of the holiday, according to the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, is Washington’s birthday which is why the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) still uses the name for the holiday.

The purpose of the bill, according to a signing statement by President Johnson, was:

[T]o insure a minimum of five regularly recurring 3-day weekends each year for Federal employees. The costs will be offset to an important degree by avoiding disruptions of Government business through Monday observance of holidays.

The Uniform Monday Holiday Act combined two holidays: Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday, February 12, and Washington’s Birthday, February 22. Although the new date, the third Monday of February, was still called Washington’s Birthday, the popular name became Presidents’ Day. Many states had been celebrating Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on February 12 but it had not been a federal holiday.

As President Johnson noted, the holiday is not just for the benefit of federal employees. “The private employer will enjoy similar gains in efficiency. The Monday holiday will stimulate greater industrial and commercial production, sparing business and labor the penalty of midweek shutdowns.”

So, perhaps as envisioned by President Johnson, we can enjoy the holiday sales events on Monday. It’s a great day to buy a new car or mattress and to spur the American economy suffering due to a pandemic. Presumably, most people will also give a passing thought to the contributions to our country’s history by Washington and Lincoln or even attend a celebration to remember the reason for the holiday.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47