President’s Day and How We Got Here

Federal workers don’t have to work today, and you can blame it on Tricky Dick.  It’s President’s Day, which began very early in the country’s history.  Brandon Rottinghaus is a University of Houston history professor, who says the holiday codified the celebration of a founder’s birthday. “President’s Day was established in the late 1800’s as a way to celebrate George Washington,” he says.  Lincoln’s birthday was also celebrated after his assassination, and different states recognized different days to honor the different presidents.  It was a situation desperately in need of organization.

Illinois Senator Robert McClory floated an idea in Congress in the late 60’s for the “Uniform Monday Holiday Act,” a proposal to move a few federal holidays to Mondays. “It eventually became a catch-call for all U.S. Presidents,” lectures Professor Rottinghaus. President Nixon established this as a way to begin the process of having more three-day-weekends for federal weekends.”  The measure proposed combining the birthdays of George Washington on February 22 and Abraham Lincoln on February 12 into one day, to be known as President’s Day, recognizing all presidents past and present.  The bill was approved and signed into law on June 28, 1968 to be effective January 1, 1971.

On February 11, 1971 President Richard Nixon signed Executive Order 11582, codifying the specifics of how the federal government would recognize the federal holidays for President’s Day, Columbus Day, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day, retroactively effective the first of that year. Veterans Day was soon returned to its November 11 Armistice Day original date, but for most Americans those reliable three day weekends have become part of how we organize our lives.

That’s why your bank, the courts, and all federal offices, as well as state and local municipalities, are closed today.

Moving these holidays from a floating day on a calendar to a predictably commonly recognized Monday allowed retailers to plan sales on days they knew people would be available to shop, and the President’s Day Sale was born.

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