U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Presidents’ Day, Public Memory, and Public Forgetting

This week in my undergraduate colloquium on World War II in history and memory since 1945, which mainly focuses on the way the war has been thought and remembered in the U.S., we’re starting a brief unit on war memory in other countries.  First up is Poland, a country whose official memory of the war for most of the half century after 1945 systematically suppressed the experience of Soviet occupation of the Eastern half of interwar Poland in 1939 as well as the anti-Soviet elements of Polish resistance during the War. The tension in Communist Poland between official memory and popular memory manifested itself in the matter of national holidays.  Two major interwar national holidays, May 3, the anniversary of the Polish constitution of 1791, and November 11, the anniversary of the end of the World War I and the reemergence of Poland, were officially eliminated after 1945.  And no holiday was created to commemorate World War II, perhaps because neither its beginning – Germany’s September 1 invasion of Poland, which came just days before the Soviet invasion – nor its end – which was popularly tainted with a sense of betrayal by the Western allies – seemed entirely safe.  By the 1980s, however, the old May 3 and November 11 holidays were being unofficially celebrated in a way that skirted the law, as millions of Poles would attend church on those days in tacit recognition of them.[1]

Reading about these holidays yesterday led me to think about the meaning of today’s federal holiday, popularly called Presidents’ Day. 

From 1885 to 1968, a federal holiday was celebrated on February 22, George Washington’s birthday (in fact, Washington was born on February 11, 1731, under the old, Julian calendar, which became February 22 following the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1752).  In 1968, largely at the behest of a number of business groups that sought to limit midweek holiday interruptions, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved most federal holidays from particular dates to designated Mondays during the year.[2]  Washington’s birthday moved to the third Monday in February, which would, in fact, never fall on Washington’s actual birthday.  Apparently, this choice reflected Congressman Robert McClory (R-IL)’s desire to move the holiday a little closer to Abraham Lincoln’s February 12 birthday, which was not celebrated by the federal government, but was recognized in a number of states.  The name “Presidents’ Day” appeared in some early drafts of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, but the bill that eventually became law retained the old name for the February holiday.  Though some states officially call it “Presidents’ Day,” the federal holiday is still officially called Washington’s Birthday.

Even at the time of its passage, opponents of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act worried that it would lead to George Washington fading from public memory. Grade-school classrooms, for example, might spend less time on the first President if his birthday was not actually celebrated. One thing has certainly faded: knowledge of Washington’s (and, in states that celebrated it, Lincoln’s) actual birthdays.  Growing up almost entirely in the era of uniform Monday holidays, I remember as a kid my parents’ amusement at our not getting February 12 and 22 off.  I was always kind of surprised that they could remember those dates.  Of course, for my parents’ generation, February 22 was just like July 4 or November 11…a date you remembered because you got it off, which, in turn, made it a kind of historical mnemonic.  Today, November 11 (once Veterans Day, now just a day that other countries celebrate) and February 22 don’t mean much of anything to most Americans, while July 4, which was not moved to a Monday in 1968, very much retains its meaning.

The problem of Presidents’ Day is compounded by the fact that, despite Congress’s ultimate decision to retain the Washington’s Birthday name, it’s now rather unclear who or what the holiday celebrates.  Growing up, I always thought that it celebrated Washington and Lincoln. Looking around online, it seems like it’s become an occasion to celebrate—or at least tweet about—all of the American presidents. But, even more than most other federal holidays, it seems to be mainly about retail sales and a long weekend.

In fact, for employees of my university, it’s not even a long weekend.  We get Martin Luther King, Jr. Day off, but not Presidents’ Day.  And my guess is that this choice of holidays has something to do with the fact that, though MLK Day came into being as a uniform Monday holiday, its relationship to its namesake is clear and direct.  If we didn’t get Martin Luther King, Jr. Day off, it would be seen as dishonoring the legacy of Dr. King. The only people I feel might be dishonored by skipping Presidents’ Day are a bunch of big-box retailers.

The story of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day suggests that merely relegating a holiday to a designated Monday does not necessarily prevent that holiday from playing a significant role in public memory.  But I do think that moving a holiday from a meaningful date to a meaningless Monday can reduce that role.  Veterans Day was November 11 because World War I ended on that day.  George Washington’s Birthday and Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday were their actual birthdays.[3]  Once most Americans knew these dates; now they don’t.  This is, needless to say, not a disaster (I’m not calling for us to fight back against the War on Washington’s Birthday), but it’s a small erosion of public memory that, all else being equal, is unfortunate.

[1] Annamaria Orla-Bukowska, “New Threads on an Old Loom: National Memory and Social Identity in Postwar and Post-Communist Poland” in Richard Ned Lebow, Wulf Kansteiner, and Claudio Fogu (eds.), The Politics of Memory in Postwar Europe (Duke University Press, 2006) is an excellent primer on World War II memory in Poland.

[2] For some facts and recent analysis of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, see this page from the National Archive’s Center for Legislative Archives as well as this 2004 piece from the National Archive’s Prologue Magazine. President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s proclamation upon signing the Act into law can be found here.

[3] Memorial Day, the other major federal holiday moved to a date to a Monday is slightly different, as its traditional May 30 date was fairly arbitrary.

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  1. Great post, Ben. I think for quite a while after 1968, California schools (and maybe this varied by district) got *both* Washington’s Birthday and Lincoln’s Birthday off. I suppose that depended on the collective bargaining agreements between each district and the teachers’ union. I don’t know when/if the holidays have been standardized for the schools of the state.

    As it happens, this evening I am teaching about Washington’s battle with the French on the outskirts of Fort Duquesne and his defeat at Fort Necessity, along with a few sundry other Seven-Years’-War related matters — smallpox infested blankets, Ben Franklin’s role in the Albany congress, etc. I wish I could say that I had planned it this way, but it’s just the luck of the calendrical draw.

    My university, like yours, observes MLK day — one week into the new semester for us — but not Presidents’ Day. It’s a long haul from MLK day to spring break. But I suppose that’s true of fall semester as well, with that long stretch between the early Labor Day holiday and Thanksgiving. (We don’t get Armistice Day off either.)

    • Thanks for the comment, LD! I have a vague memory of getting separate, Monday-fied Washington’s and Lincoln’s Birthday holidays in the California schools in the ’70s.

    • I too remember, vaguely, having two days off for Washington’s Birthday & President’s Day in the ’80s. By high school, that was no longer the case. So, at least, the variability is probably quite broad.

  2. This is a great post, and I have a funny story to go along with it.

    So today I drove to the post office to pick up a parcel that I wasn’t at home on Saturday to receive. If I’d only paid attention to what the note left by the postman said, that I could pick it up on Feb. 18, this would not have happened. As it is, I get to the post office and notice it’s closed. For a few seconds I was confused, then remembered that today was Presidents’ Day. I’ve never had the day out, no matter what level of schooling I was in. It’s almost just words on a calendar at this point. You see them…but that’s it. Oh, you’ll notice some holiday sales in the Sunday paper, but that’s it.

    I think your point about Veterans Day is also important, especially since we’re approaching five years’ worth of commemoration of the Great War—in Europe. I don’t know if anything will be planned for Veterans Day 2018 to reconnect the holiday back to its WWI roots. But after visiting the WWI Memorial in Kansas City years ago, I feel it’s a shame we’ve disconnected that day from the war that spawned it.

    • I don’t know if anything will be planned for Veterans Day 2018 to reconnect the holiday back to its WWI roots. But after visiting the WWI Memorial in Kansas City years ago, I feel it’s a shame we’ve disconnected that day from the war that spawned it.

      Spoken like a genuine historian, dude.

      In the UK’s Commonwealth, it’s called Remembrance Day. Observing the day by wearing a poppy, honoring the dead of the stupidest war in man’s history, has become yet another political football overseas.


      FTR–America’s investment in WWI was relatively “light” next to the Commonwealth’s 1,000,000 dead—“only” 116,000 official combat deaths, yet still more than Vietnam [58,000], Korea [37,000] combined.

      And on the other hand, the butcher’s bill for America’s Civil War was recently updated to over 700,000. Not that America didn’t have it coming, mind you.

      IMO, of course. [And Mr. Lincoln’s.]

      >blockquote>Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

  3. In fact, for employees of my university, it’s not even a long weekend. We get Martin Luther King, Jr. Day off, but not Presidents’ Day. And my guess is that this choice of holidays has something to do with the fact that

    Sort of like that, though not exactly.

  4. This is a fascinating history, one that I had honestly not thought much about.
    A quick speculation: was there any tension in the South over the regional and racial politics of combining a holiday celebrating a Southerner with the remembrance of the birthday of the Great Emancipator, especially given the timing of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act? I ask because I’ve heard of efforts today to replace Lincoln in the annual Republican “Lincoln Day Dinner” with Reagan: clearly Lincoln’s legacy remains more contested than we perhaps realize, and I would imagine that may have been even more the case in 1968.

    • My guess is that Southern objections to even implicitly giving federal recognition to Lincoln’s Birthday would have contributed to the ultimate decision in ’68 to retain the Washington’s Birthday name for the federal holiday (a decision that practice has largely come to ignore, of course).

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