This week we recognized presidents. In fact, since 1971, the third Monday in February has marked the celebration of the federal holiday that has become commonly known as Presidents’ Day. Today the event is mostly ignored by the private sector, many schools and even state and local governments. Most people today don’t even know that prior to 1971, the celebration was centered entirely on the “Father of our Nation,” George Washington.
Public celebration of Washington's Birthday was an American tradition that began even before the Revolutionary War ended, as colonists paid homage to General Washington’s brilliance, courage, and leadership on the battlefield. In the late 1870s, a senator from Arkansas proposed the unprecedented idea of adding "citizen" Washington's birth date, February 22, to the four existing bank holidays previously recognized as federal holidays.
A popular proposal, the holiday bill required little debate. Signed into law in January1879, by President Rutherford B. Hayes, the law was implemented in 1880 and applied only to District of Columbia federal workers. In 1885 the holiday was extended to federal workers in the thirty-eight states thus marking the first federal holiday to honor an American citizen.
The shift in focus from Washington’s solo celebration to the all-inclusive Presidents’ Day started in 1968, when Congress introduced a bill called the Uniform Monday Holiday Bill. The bill was aimed at reducing governmental employee absenteeism and giving a sort of benefit package to American families. The argument was that holidays that occurred on specific dates always fell on different days of the week each year. If a holiday fell in the middle of the workweek, American families would be less able to fully enjoy the leisure and pleasures of a three-day weekend. Supporters of the bill also argued Monday holidays would improve commercial and industrial production.
Christmas and New Year’s Day were immediately exempted as were eventually July 4th and Thanksgiving. This left Washington’s Birthday, Veteran’s Day, and Memorial Day.
When the Holiday Bill was in committee, one of the bill’s key supporters, Rep. Robert McClory of Illinois, pushed for the holiday recognizing Washington’s birth to be renamed generically as Presidents’ Day. The proposal was met with swift opposition, namely from lawmakers in Virginia, Washington’s home state, and the proposed name change was stripped from the bill.
After that defeat, McClory continued to press the committee to approve moving the federal recognition of Washington’s birthdate from Feb 22, to the third Monday in Feburary. Using the same arguments that spawned the bill in the first place, McClory said "We are not changing George Washington's birthday. . . .We would make George Washington's Birthday more meaningful to many more people by having it observed on a Monday.”
While the name change didn’t stick, the committee did approve the switch in federal observance from February 22 to the third Monday in February, despite the glaring fact that the 22nd has never, nor can it ever, fall on the third Monday in February.
Some claim that McClory’s motivation was to move the date closer to the birth date of historic president and fellow Illinois lawmaker, Abraham Lincoln, whose birthday is February 12. Regardless, knowing that future generations are caretakers of the past, Tennessee Representative Dan Kuykendall cut to the heart of the matter. Over fifty years ago he made this startling and accurate prediction: "If we do this, 10 years from now our schoolchildren will not know or care when George Washington was born. They will know that in the middle of February they will have a 3-day weekend for some reason. This will come," he said.
In the US Code this holiday is still listed officially as Washington’s Birthday. Yet look at a normal calendar and chances are it will say Presidents’ Day. How true have Dan Kuykendall’s words become? When we forget about our nation’s most important historical figure, the “Father of our Country,” a great and godly man such as George Washington, we also stand to forget the principles and foundations of our very society.
But that doesn’t have to happen—and families are the key to making sure it doesn’t happen. Take time this week to talk with your children about what this past Monday was really all about. Tell the story of George Washington and his importance to our nation. Let’s do all we can to preserve the truth about our nation’s history.
This is Julaine Appling for Wisconsin Family Council reminding you the Prophet Hosea said, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.”
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