Washington was born on February 11, 1731…under the Julian Calendar. This was the old calendar established under Julius Caesar. Pope Gregory moved the Catholic world to a more accurate calendar in 1582, but Protestant England, under Queen Elizabeth, wasn’t bound by the change. Leap year differences put Britain and the America colonies eleven days behind the rest of the western world. Moreover, New Year’s Day was March 25 under the old calendar, not January 1. Consequently, when the British Empire finally changed to the Gregorian Calendar in 1752, Washington’s birthday changed from February 11, 1731 to February 22, 1732. Both dates are correct, but the proper way to note the Julian date is “February 11, 1731 (O.S.).” The abbreviation stand for “old style.”
Washington’s Birthday was declared a holiday by Congress in 1879. Many people don’t realize that Congress has no authority to declare holidays (days off) for anyone other than federal employees and residents of the District of Columbia. States, however, followed the federal government’s lead and Washington’s Birthday was celebrated for decades on February 22. Abraham Lincoln’s birthday was never a federal holiday, but was celebrated by many states on February 12—just ten days before Washington’s birthday. In the 1950s, there was an effort to establish a third holiday, President’s Day, to honor “the office of the presidency” on March 4 – the original day of quadrennial inaugurations. Though some states adopted the new holiday, Congress declined to in the belief that three holidays in rapid succession were too many.
Under our present Constitution, the United States has had forty-five presidents. Some have been great and some have not. Reputations have waxed and waned as attitudes change and new biographies are written. Celebrating “President’s Day” seems to make no more sense that celebrating “Congress Day” or “Supreme Court Day.” In the fact, the notion of a “President’s Day” has vaguely monarchist overtones. Surely, we can all think of several presidents who don’t deserve the honor. Washington, however, stands high above the rest. He is rightly known as the father of the country. He effectuated a great break with the past, establishing durable and free government in part by repeatedly declining to cling to power. Only one other president rivals his claim to greatness.
Holidays have always been the subject of civic activism. Veterans Day was moved back to November 11 in 1975 to align with the World War I armistice. Columbus Day has been replaced by “Indigenous People’s Day” in Florida, Hawaii, Alaska, Vermont, South Dakota, New Mexico, and Maine. If you live in a place (such as, believe it or not, Washington State) that celebrates “President’s Day,” you might want to call your state legislator and point out that Chester Arthur doesn’t belong on the same holiday stage as George Washington.
More from The 8th Virginia Regiment
is researching the history of the Revolutionary War's 8th Virginia Regiment. Its ten companies formed on the frontier, from the Cumberland Gap to Pittsburgh.
© 2015-2020 Gabriel Neville