“In the earlier years, when it was celebrated, it was more than celebrating his birth, it was celebrating what we liked about Washington: He walked away from power, a very poignant lesson for people,” presidential historian Doug Wead said.
It wasn’t until 1885, though, that February 22 became designated a federal holiday to honor Washington.
Presidential historian C.L. Arbelbide wrote in a 2004 article in the National Archives publication “Prologue” that succeeding generations found “significant ways to periodically resurrect his memory,” as evidenced by the laying of the Washington Monument’s cornerstone in 1848.
“The numerous tributes continued to reaffirm George Washington’s place as the original ‘American Idol,'” Arbelbide wrote in the article titled “By George, IT IS Washington’s Birthday!”
Wead, who was special assistant to President George H.W. Bush, said Americans later fell in love with another President with similar attributes.
Abraham Lincoln, born on February 12, 1809, became a popular figure after freeing the slaves and ending the Civil War. But it wasn’t until his assassination in April 1865 that Americans began to see Lincoln in a different light.
“Lincoln, because he was assassinated, he overnight became a beloved figure and suddenly a genius,” Wead said.
Although he was considered “a buffoon and dumb during his time,” after his death, everything he said was re-read and studied, Wead said.
In 1968, Congress debated whether to combine the two presidents’ birthdays into one holiday but decided against it. The legislative body passed the Monday Holidays Act that year, which said existing federal holidays would now be observed on Mondays to give government workers a long weekend.
The bill went into effect in 1971 and deemed that “Washington’s Birthday” would be moved from February 22 to the third Monday in February.
Though his birthday is a federal holiday, not all states celebrate it on the same day. While Congress has the authority to create federal holidays, states and the private sector do not have to observe them.
With the confusion over whose birthday it is and when it is celebrated, many Americans have simply lost interest in the day’s true meaning, Wead said. The reason? Presidential nostalgia has been replaced by criticism and controversy.
“We don’t have that [nostalgia] anymore. Part of that is cynicism about presidents today — Nixon, Johnson, Carter, Clinton, Bush … there’s less respect,” he said. “There was a lot of respect for Washington because he walked away from power. That was just unheard of.”