Image Source: General George Washington at Trenton by John Trumble, 1792, Yale University Art Gallery
Four presidents actually have birthdays in February: George Washington (the 22nd), Abraham Lincoln (the 12th), William Henry Harrison (the 9th), and Ronald Reagan (the 6th). But, in terms of Federal law, there is no "Presidents Day" — the holiday is officially Washington's Birthday.
The story of Presidents' Day date begins in 1800. Following the death of George Washington in 1799, his February 22 birthday became a perennial day of remembrance. At the time, Washington was venerated as the most important figure in American history, and events like the 1832 centennial of his birth and the start of construction of the Washington Monument in 1848 were cause for national celebration. In 1862, Lincoln issued a proclamation declaring February 22nd a day of celebration honoring Washington.
A Federal holiday on February 22nd was officially passed into law in 1879. Below is an excerpt from the Revised Statutes of the Forty-Fifth Congress. The law was extended to cover all Federal employees, not just those in Washington D.C., in 1885.
Visit the Mount Vernon Memorial Museum website to learn more about George Washington's life, from his youth to his time as president and onward. The National Archies also has an in-depth look at the history of Washington's Birthday and its impact.
Image Source: Brooks Kraft, Getty Images
The shift from Washington’s Birthday to Presidents' Day began in the late 1960s, when Congress proposed a measure known as the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. Championed by Senator Robert McClory of Illinois, this law sought to shift the celebration of several federal holidays from specific dates to a series of predetermined Mondays.
This holiday is designated as “Washington’s Birthday” in section 6103(a) of title 5 of the United States Code, which is the law that specifies holidays for Federal employees. Though other institutions such as state and local governments and private businesses may use other names, it is our policy to always refer to holidays by the names designated in the law.
The Uniform Monday Holiday Act also included a provision to combine the celebration of Washington’s birthday with that of Abraham Lincoln, which fell on February 12. Lincoln’s Birthday had long been a state holiday in places like Illinois.
Eventually, the main piece of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act passed in 1968 and officially took effect in 1971 following an executive order from President Richard M. Nixon.