If you live in the United States and you’re anything like us, you might view Presidents’ Day as just another three-day weekend in February.
But the story behind this important commemorative holiday is more interesting than you might think—especially considering Presidents’ Day isn’t the official name of the holiday at all.
When was the first Presidents’ Day?
Presidents’ Day was first established in 1885 to honor the February 22 birthday of our mythic first president and dollar bill cover model, George Washington. In fact, the holiday is still officially known by the federal government as Washington’s Birthday. In 1879, President Rutherford B. Hayes signed a bill into law making Washington’s birthday a holiday. Originally only celebrated within the District of Columbia, the holiday became a federal one in 1885, marking the first time an American individual was memorialized via a federally recognized bank holiday. (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the second.)
In 1971, the holiday known as Washington’s Birthday experienced a big change with the passage of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which created more three-day weekends for workers. This act moved the holiday to the third Monday in February. When the bill was signed into law, a newspaper spoof declared Washington’s Birthday a day for for all presidents—and people latched on to the idea even though it was never formalized at the federal level.
Here’s the even more interesting part: depending on where you live, the official name of this holiday varies. In some states, the holiday honors George Washington, in others it honors both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln (born Feb. 12). Yet other states honor a combination of presidents, hence the name Presidents’ Day.
Why do we call the president … the president?
Have you ever wondered why we call the leader of our nation a president, and not, say, His Majesty the King? Well that was by design.
In 1789 or so, as George Washington was readying to take the oath of office, Congress was debating what title to give their new leader. The House of Representatives felt the simple label of president, found in Article II of the Constitution, sufficed, while the Senate pushed for a more regal title that would demand respect for the office. Several highfalutin terms were floated, such as His Exalted Highness, His Elective Highness, Chief Magistrate, and, our personal favorite, the verbose His Highness, the President of the United States of America and Protector of their Liberties.
Vice President John Adams liked that last one, though Thomas Jefferson reportedly said it was “the most superlatively ridiculous thing I ever heard of.”
The title debate lasted over three weeks, amounting to one of the first major disputes between the House and the Senate over the language of the Constitution. We’re very glad they landed on president.
Does one Presidents’ Day fit all?
Although Presidents’ Day originally recognized Washington, the holiday seems to have morphed into a patriotic day that celebrates the general achievements of all our leaders, past and present. According to the History Channel, “some states have even chosen to customize the holiday by adding new figures to the celebration. Arkansas, for instance, celebrates Washington as well as civil rights activist Daisy Gatson Bates. Alabama, meanwhile, uses Presidents’ Day to commemorate Washington and Thomas Jefferson (who was born in April).”
The holiday also gives car dealers an excuse to have weekend-holiday sales, since nothing says “Presidents’ Day” like a sweet deal on a new Toyota.
Should we use the apostrophe or not?
When you do a search for Presidents’ Day online, you’ll notice that it’s rendered in slightly different ways–in part because that’s not the authorized name of the holiday. As we’ve mentioned, it is formally known as Washington’s Birthday, which means the unofficial Presidents’ Day can be written a few ways. President’s Day (with an ‘s) is used when people want to commemorate the presidency as an institution, or as a possessive alternative to Washington’s Birthday. (It’s also the legal spelling of the holiday in eight states.) When you’re celebrating more than one president, the more favorable form would be the more inclusive Presidents’ Day (with an s’).
That said, the popularity of the apostrophe-less form Presidents Day has increased in recent years—this is the style favored by the Associated Press Stylebook and followed by most newspapers and magazines.
Regardless, just be glad we don’t have to celebrate His Exalted Highness Day. Nobody wants that.
Can’t get enough US presidential history? Take a look at these Chiefs of Presidential Speech.