Friday, February 18, 2011

The Twisted History of Presidents' Day

Monday Feb 21st is Presidents' Day right?

On the face of it this holiday seems pretty straightforward.  It's called Presidents' Day, it's a national holiday and it celebrates the birthday of Presidents Washington and Lincoln.

Sorry. There is no such thing as a national holiday. There are federal holidays where federal offices are closed. Monday is a federal holiday.
According to the Federal Gov the third Monday in February is officially called ---Washington's Birthday---not Presidents’ Day. It officially and legally has nothing to do with Abraham Lincoln.

Oh I can hear the traffic on google...

Why is that?
Hard to believe but Abraham Lincoln was never honored with a federal holiday. I know you’re going to send me to websites that say Monday is a national holiday called President’s Day.  Remember, there’s no such thing as a national holiday and that isn’t how you’d spell Presidents’ Day anyway. (There’s lots of iffy info on the Internet.)

Part of the confusion stems from the fact that you may remember having off on Lincoln’s birthday. You may have, many states used to have a state holiday for Honest Abe.  No surprise that Illinois was the first in 1892.

But states are not obliged to adopt federal holidays, which only affect federal offices and agencies. While most states have adopted the federal celebration of Washington's Birthday, a dozen of them officially celebrate something they call Presidents' Day. A number of the states that celebrate Washington's Birthday also recognize Lincoln's Birthday as a separate legal holiday. Illinois the land of Lincoln is one.  New York State is another it celebrates: Feb 12th Lincoln’s birthday and Feb 19th Washington’s Birthday.

What gives??? Here goes...

The original holiday commemorated GW's B-day.  It was first held the last
full year of his presidency on Feb 11th 1796. However, by then Feb 11th was no longer his birthday.


George Washington was born on Feb. 11, 1731, however, this was according to Ye old Julian calendar. In 1752, Britain and her American Colonies switched to the Gregorian calendar, which changed the New Year from March back to January (we'll talk about this again when we get to our April Fools posting). The switch also made dates jump ahead an additional 11 days. Thus, in 1752 Washington began blowing out birthday candles on Feb 22nd.

Not everyone was happy with celebrating GW's b-day --whatever the date. Thomas Jefferson and his pals thought it all a little too similar to adulation of royalty like the damned Brits.

These disagreements lasted until Washington kicked the bucket in 1799.
Congress then passed a resolution calling on the nation to observe February 22, 1800 in his honor. But it was not a federal holiday.

Since he was a southern boy, GW's b-day was always big in the South; in fact, Richmond Virginia was officially celebrating it before he became President. But, the observance didn't really catch on nationwide until 1832 just after what would have been his 100th birthday. By then, GW had pretty much been elevated to American Sainthood.

One notable birthday party happened in 1850 in La-La-land. There, a fancy dress ball was held in honor of Washington where only L.A.'s upper crust were allowed to attend. They arrived in Hummer coaches at Graumann's Colonial. The hoi polloi (lower classes from Greek “the many”) retaliated by firing a canon into the ballroom, killing several partygoers.

Okay, so here's where things get hinky.

In 1864 Old Abe gets whacked.
He was killed on Good Friday, the day Jesus was crucified. Here in New York signs were put up along Broadway that said,  "Our Christ has fallen" GW may have reached Sainthood but now he had some competition.

(The fact that Old Abe was at the theater on Good Friday should give you a good indication that he wasn’t a religious man, and that there once was a time when you didn’t have to cater to the Religious right to get elected.)

Congress held a memorial service the following year on Abe's b-day Feb 12th. After that, some northern states declared Abe day an official state holiday but Ole Abe was still quite unloved in the south and they didn’t come to the party.  Which is why Lincoln's Birthday never became a Federal holiday.

The oddest part of the story is that George Washington's birthday didn't become an official federal holiday until 1885, a full 21 years after Lincoln's death.  It seems to me they could have declared a Combo deal Presidents' Day then, but didn't. The slight to Abe looks political and intentional. Especially when you learn that Robert E Lee’s birthday, Jan 19th, is a state holiday in Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi and Virginia. It’s celebrated as Confederate Heroes day in Texas. Alabama, Mississippi Florida also celebrate the birthday of Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy. But no Abe Lincoln.

In 1971 in an attempt to give folks 3-day weekends, the observation of Washington's Birthday was officially shifted to the third Monday in February by order of legislation HR15951. Some reformers had wanted to change the name of the holiday as well, to Presidents' Day, to honor both Abe and George, but Congress rejected that proposal. I’m not sure if this was due to the Southern Congressional Caucus. But the result was the holiday remained and still officially remains: Washington's Birthday.

Here’s where the confusion comes in---President Nixon not only had a hard time understanding and following the Constitution, Tricky Did didn't understand the difference between an Executive Order and an Executive Proclamation. He made a proclamation calling it Presidents' Day saying it was to celebrate all presidents, even himself, but a Presidential Proclamation carries no legal standing. Which is why Monday still officially celebrates George Washington not Abraham Lincoln.

Abe & George's Excellent New York Adventure

If you care to celebrate the day, you dear citizen of Gotham are once again in a most envious position.

You can stand outside the 42nd Street library in the middle of Fifth Ave –the spot where in 1776 General George Washington rode his horse attempting to rally his troops in a battle against British Soldiers.

You can go uptown to Fort Washington where, duh, Washington’s fort stood. 

Stand at the Fulton Ferry landing in Brooklyn next to the Barge Music boat. Look for a rock and plaque that marks the spot where GW stood as he evacuated his army after they were beaten by the British at the Battle of Brooklyn in August 1776.

Go over the George Washington Bridge, which rises above the very spot where once again he and his entire army evacuated the city.

You can walk over to Union Square Park and stand in front of the old site of Virgin Records ( Now a Citibank) across from the equestrian statue of George Washington. A colonial Inn once stood here on the road just outside of New York (Wall street area). In 1783 after the Revolutionary War General Washington waited here until he got word that the British Army had finally evacuated the city. Then Washington mounted his horse and rode downtown and reoccupied New York. (I say, is that why there's an equestrian statue of Washington here?)
Washington on Broadway the day the Brits evacuated.

Or you can walk out beside Citibank at 14th and Broadway ( the old Virgin Records site) and stand in the street, in the middle of Broadway. Abraham Lincoln’s funeral cortege rode over this spot in 1864; all the buildings and lampposts were draped in black.  Look up at the building opposite you Shoe Mania! 

Teddy Roosevelt in 2nd floor window on left
Lincoln in box on street.

If you were here that day you would have seen a young boy looking out the 2nd story window watching the procession. The boy would one day grow up to be President, his name Theodore Roosevelt. (You can visit his boyhood home a mere 3 blocks from here The building that stood on the procession route was his Uncle’s house.

You can walk through the lobby of City Hall where Lincoln’s body was placed to await mourners.

Walk outside into City Hall Park and stand where George Washington stood when he first heard the Declaration of Independence read aloud to his troops.

Washington sworn in at Wall and Bwy. Trinity Church in the bkgrd.
Or go a few blocks south to Wall and Broad and stand where George Washington was sworn in as our first President- (I say, is that why there’s a big statue of Georgie here?) Yes, New York was the nation’s first Capital.  Washington lived at 39 Broadway.  And worshiped at St. Paul’s church across from City Hall Park, where you can still see his pew.

The First White House
Or  go over and stand next to the Brooklyn Bridge anchorage near Pearl Street. Where the first “White House” stood.  Washington’s home when New York City was the United States first capital.

Or walk through the Washington Square Arch put here to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of Washington Inauguration.

Or go to the Metropolitan Museum and see the famous painting Washington crossing the Delaware.

Or go into Kean’s Chophouse at 72 west 36th and see the original Ford’s Theatre Playbill from the night Lincoln was assassinated.

Or Visit The Forbes Galleries at 62 Fifth Ave. and see a handwritten letter by Mary Todd Lincoln contesting some charges for Abe’s Inauguration suit. 

Mrs. Lincoln's fave store Victoria's Secret
Or walk into a store she frequented–Arnold Constable’s Dry Good store at Fifth Ave and 19th street. (The French 2nd Empire building that now houses Victoria Secret.)

Lincoln at Cooper Union

Or you can walk over to Astor Place—and go to the auditorium of Cooper-Union where Lincoln gave his famous speech that concluded:


Or walk into McSorley’s Old Ale house across the street where old Abe threw one back after his speech.

But do celebrate.

One last thing ---as a copywriter I’m struck by the fact we think we’re pretty hot stuff when we can use 72 words to communicate something in a 30 second tv spot. Read below and see what a truly inspired writer can do with 256 words.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

 Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

 But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Worth remembering – both the man and the words.

Happy whateva.

President of Curious New York

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