MIKE KEELER: Who Are We REALLY Celebrating?

On President’s Day weekend, it’s nice to know there are some things we can all agree on.


George Washington was born on February 11. There’s no doubt about it. The year was 1731. He was a member of a fairly influential Virginia family, so we have very good substantiation about the facts of his birth. However, there’s still lingering discussion about his birth date, because in 1752, Wednesday the 2nd of September was immediately followed by Thursday the 14th of September, and the intervening 11 days simply disappeared!

England and its colonies were finally making the jump from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar, after having resisted it since the rest of Europe (and those evil papists in Rome) had first done it way back in 1582. And so, in Washington’s generation, folks had to decide when to commemorate certain things; should they use the original date of an event, or add 11 days to bring it in line with the new reality?

Painting: George Washington as Colonel in the Virginia Regiment, Charles Willson Peale, oil on canvas, 1772 Washington-Custis-Lee Collection, Washington and Lee University, Lexington, VA

For Washington, this meant that, as he got famous, he was asked whether he’d like to be feted on the 11th, or the 22nd? Washington didn’t have a strong preference for a long time. But then, in 1799, his step-granddaughter Nelly Custis married his nephew Lawrence Lewis (they were first cousins once removed, but not related by blood) and they honored Washington by holding the ceremony on the 22nd. That sealed the deal, Washington’s birthday was celebrated on that date from that point onward.

This eventually led to the creation of an official national holiday, Washington’s Birthday, on February 22, beginning in 1879, as well as an annual tradition of reading Washington’s famous Farewell Address on the floor of the Senate on that date, which began in 1896.

In the meantime, Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12th, 1809. We can all agree on that. What we have NEVER agreed on is what to do about it. That’s because the end of the Civil War and Lincoln’s assassination didn’t bring the country together, it merely unleashed a century of sectional celebrational strife.

In 1873, a druggist in Buffalo started advocating for a national holiday to celebrate Lincoln’s birth. The idea was taken up by most of the northern states, but was roundly rejected by the former confederate states, who contemptuously countered with Lee-Jackson Day (honoring two southern generals both born in January) starting in 1889.

You might think the passage of time would heal these sectional wounds. But you would be underestimating the power of repudiation. As the 1960’s came around, the country finally lived up to Lincoln’s promise “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom,” by passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But then, just 4 years later, Martin Luther King was slain in April, and in June, Congress approved a rather tortured bill called the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, in an attempt to codify lots of conflicting commemorations into one cogent calendar.

And in their wisdom, one full century after the close of the Civil War, Congress decided two things. First, thenceforth there would be a national holiday on the 3rd Monday in February, which is a date that can never fall on Washington’s actual birthday – either one of them. And second, Abraham Lincoln, quite certainly the second-greatest American who ever lived, gets bupkis, absolutely no recognition on the federal calendar whatsoever.

The name of the holiday is, officially speaking, “Washington’s Birthday.”

Thankfully, repudiation works both ways, and we the people don’t have to abide by federal decree. This weekend, whether you’re test-driving a car, buying a mattress, or just taking Monday off, you can pay your respects by recognizing the man who created your country, as well as the man who saved it.

Say it with me: “Happy President’s Day!”

– Mike Keeler

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