Let’s get this straight. The White House Office of Management and Budget, the final arbiter of these matters, says the holiday is Washington’s Birthday, not Presidents’ Day, and it says so right there in section 6103(a) of Title 5 of the United States Code.
However, OMB says other people can call the day what they want and the rest of the country has settled on Presidents’ Day ever since 1971 when Congress combined George Washington’s birthday, Feb. 22, and Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, Feb. 12, into the third Monday in February.
Washington’s birthday had been an American holiday since the early 19th century, celebrated with the usual lofty speeches and Birthnight Balls, a practice copied from the British tradition of marking the monarch’s birthday.
Congress first marked Lincoln’s birthday in 1866, the year after his murder, with speeches of remembrance.
Washington won — or at least kept us from losing — the Revolution and quickly ended the Whiskey Rebellion, the first serious challenge to the infant government. He declined invitations to become a despot and left the presidency after two terms.
Lincoln overcame the bloody challenge of the Civil War and signed the
Emancipation Proclamation. The country would have been a better place and the South spared the excesses of Reconstruction if he had lived to serve out his second term.
The loftier purposes of Presidents’ Day seem to be remarked only in passing and it now has become a national day of shopping. Washington was a dedicated businessman — his distillery is being restored as we speak — and perhaps wouldn’t have minded his depiction with a hatchet, chopping prices for the Presidents’ Day sale. Lincoln had a dry sense of humor and he would be bemused by salespeople wearing trademark top hats and frock coats to promote their wares.
It is worth pausing at least briefly to note that if not for these two leaders, there might not be a United States, certainly not in the form we know and cherish.
Happy Washington’s Birthday or, if you prefer, Presidents’ Day.