President's Day or Washington's birthday? It's complicated

When I was growing up, both Washington's birthday (February 22) and Lincoln's birthday (February 12) were national holidays.  It didn't matter if they fell on a Friday or Monday; we marked the calendar every year on those dates to celebrate the lives of two of our greatest presidents.

But in 1968, to throw a bone to federal workers, Congress changed the law to allow for three-day weekends and Monday holidays – and both Washington and Lincoln were snubbed.

Leave it to Congress to muck things up.

In 1968, Congress passed the Monday Holidays Act, which moved the official observance of Washington's birthday from Feb. 22 to the third Monday in February. Some reformers had wanted to change the name of the holiday as well, to Presidents' Day, in honor of both Lincoln and Washington, but that proposal was rejected by Congress, and the holiday remained officially Washington's Birthday.

Nevertheless, there was a popular misconception that the day had been officially renamed, a misconception only reinforced by the fact that the third Monday in February can only occur between Feb. 15 and Feb. 21. This means that the holiday is always after Lincoln's birthday and before Washington's birthday, without ever coinciding with either. Furthermore, some states which had previously celebrated Lincoln's Birthday dropped the observance after the federal holiday reforms, supporting the notion that the two presidential birthdays had been combined.

While the name change has never been authorized by Congress, it has gained a strong hold on the public consciousness, and is generally used on calendars, in advertising, and even by many government agencies. There have been attempts to introduce legislation requiring federal agencies to call the day Washington's Birthday, but these have never gotten very far. No matter what's in the law books, the popular usage is now well established.

For me, the issue isn't whether we should call today "President's Day" or "Washington's birthday."  The issue is honoring our first president by making February 22 a holiday regardless of what day of the week it falls on.

Washington's greatest biographer, James Flexner, calls him "The Indespensable Man."  What makes that statement unique in American history is that Washington was indespensable to both the Revolution and the founding of the American government.  Could the American republic have come into being and thrived without George Washington?  It's hard to imagine an America without him.

For his contributions to winning the fight for our independence and his unparalleled leadership in the early days of the republic, George Washington's birthday needs to be a national holiday.

When I was growing up, both Washington's birthday (February 22) and Lincoln's birthday (February 12) were national holidays.  It didn't matter if they fell on a Friday or Monday; we marked the calendar every year on those dates to celebrate the lives of two of our greatest presidents.

But in 1968, to throw a bone to federal workers, Congress changed the law to allow for three-day weekends and Monday holidays – and both Washington and Lincoln were snubbed.

Leave it to Congress to muck things up.

In 1968, Congress passed the Monday Holidays Act, which moved the official observance of Washington's birthday from Feb. 22 to the third Monday in February. Some reformers had wanted to change the name of the holiday as well, to Presidents' Day, in honor of both Lincoln and Washington, but that proposal was rejected by Congress, and the holiday remained officially Washington's Birthday.

Nevertheless, there was a popular misconception that the day had been officially renamed, a misconception only reinforced by the fact that the third Monday in February can only occur between Feb. 15 and Feb. 21. This means that the holiday is always after Lincoln's birthday and before Washington's birthday, without ever coinciding with either. Furthermore, some states which had previously celebrated Lincoln's Birthday dropped the observance after the federal holiday reforms, supporting the notion that the two presidential birthdays had been combined.

While the name change has never been authorized by Congress, it has gained a strong hold on the public consciousness, and is generally used on calendars, in advertising, and even by many government agencies. There have been attempts to introduce legislation requiring federal agencies to call the day Washington's Birthday, but these have never gotten very far. No matter what's in the law books, the popular usage is now well established.

For me, the issue isn't whether we should call today "President's Day" or "Washington's birthday."  The issue is honoring our first president by making February 22 a holiday regardless of what day of the week it falls on.

Washington's greatest biographer, James Flexner, calls him "The Indespensable Man."  What makes that statement unique in American history is that Washington was indespensable to both the Revolution and the founding of the American government.  Could the American republic have come into being and thrived without George Washington?  It's hard to imagine an America without him.

For his contributions to winning the fight for our independence and his unparalleled leadership in the early days of the republic, George Washington's birthday needs to be a national holiday.