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Tag Archive: Richard Nixon

Feb 16

Presidents’ Day is a confusing holiday

President’s Day is a little bit puzzling to me, but it didn’t used to be.

When I was in elementary school and until 1971, we celebrated the holiday with two days off from school, one for President Washington and one for President Lincoln.

Every school child knew that President Abraham Lincoln was born on Feb. 12th, and everyone of us knew by heart that President George Washington’s birthday was Feb. 22nd.

No national holiday existed yet.

Originally called Washington’s Birthday, Feb. 22nd was a day set aside in 1885 by President Chester Arthur as a day to honor the “father of our country.”

Since 1968, however, I cannot get Presidents Day straight in my mind because in that year Congress passed the Monday Holidays Act.

Everyone was supposed to celebrate Presidents Day the third Monday in February to honor two of our greatest presidents of the United States, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, on the same day.

I remember that teachers, students and the general public were perplexed about the change in 1968, but, as it turned out, we weren’t the only ones.

On Capital Hill, lawmakers found a surprising glitch in its Monday Holidays Act. Congress learned after the fact that there was a federal statute already on the books designating the third Monday as Washington’s Birthday.

Did that leave Lincoln out?

No one seemed to know, but some legislators fought to include Lincoln in the official name. The resolution was defeated and, contrary to popular belief, I learned that the name of the federal holiday has never been officially changed, and remains on the books designated as Washington’s Birthday.

After a few years of uncertainty, President Richard Nixon issued a proclamation in 1971 stating that the third Monday of February would honor all past presidents of the United States.

This was supposed to clear things up since most people had no idea whether to continue celebrating Feb. 12 and 22 separately or together. Some schools observed both days during this period of time, but many, as I recall, no longer gave students two days off, only one.

There was another glitch in this situation that added even more confusion.

The news media or the government or someone began to tell us that the new presidential proclamation, although important and weighty, was not the same as an executive order.

If I remember correctly, banks did not close at first on the new Presidents Day, and the post office delivered mail because states were not required to adopt the federal holiday, since Presidents Day really wasn’t a federal holiday.

It may sound impossible to believe these days, but no one split hairs much back then, and in time, Presidents Day observances around the country complied without much fuss with the Monday Holiday Act.

Although Nixon’s proclamation indicated we should celebrate all past presidents’ birthdays, it is safe to say there weren’t many festivities centered around the birthdays of Grover Cleveland or William Henry Harrison, for instance.

I am happy to tell you that recently I found some children’s Crayola coloring pages much like we used when I was a child. Both Washington and Lincoln are depicted together with a big birthday cake and lots of candles on one page, and other pages feature them separately.

And printed in large type are the familiar words: Happy Birthday, Presidents Washington and Lincoln.

Nice to know some things never change.


Feb 17

On Presidents Day, two still tug at our hearts

“Associate with men of good quality if you esteem your own reputation; for it is better to be alone than in bad company.”—George Washington

On Presidents Day, two presidents still tug at our hearts; it is almost romantic.

George Washington and Abraham Lincoln remain as respected and revered today as they did before they entered office. I guess you could say America is in love with them.

And, their reputations do not tarnish.

I say this despite the fact that Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter in 1976 that “No man will ever bring out of the Presidency the reputation which carries him into it.”

These two former presidents did.

If this were a question on Family Feud, the survey would say George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are inarguably the most venerated of presidents and continue to hold our high esteem.

In fact, Washington and Lincoln were so revered when I was a child that schools honored their birthdays on two separate occasions, one for each president.

Things were different before 1971, the year that Presidents Day became a federal holiday. Schools and banks did not close prior to that, and the post office delivered mail.

The president in 1971 was President Richard M. Nixon who issued a proclamation stating that the third Monday of February would honor all past presidents of the United States.

There was a glitch, however.

A federal statue was already on the books designating that day as Washington’s birthday, and a presidential proclamation, although weighty, was not the same as an executive order.

No one split hairs, and eventually the holiday simply came into being. Thereafter, Presidents Day became the term commonly used.

But long before the federal holiday was proclaimed, the country celebrated Lincoln’s birthday on February 12th , his actual birthday, and Washington’s on his, February 22nd.

Their birthdays were met with great fanfare in most elementary schools and featured elaborate classroom decorations, the singing of patriotic songs, the telling of legendary stories, the recitation of poems and the consumption of yummy cupcakes with white icing and red sprinkles.

We imagined Lincoln living in a log cabin and learning to read by candlelight and Washington chopping down a cherry tree and never telling a lie.

Yes, I suppose one could indeed call it romantic.

Our school celebrations were not quite as exciting as on Valentine’s Day, however, but they were close.

Pupils cut out head-size construction-paper silhouettes of Washington and Lincoln. The artwork, usually on white or black paper, was then pasted onto red paper or white doilies with messy white paste from a jar. The presidential likenesses were hung on classroom walls just above the blackboards.

It occurs to me that the reason schools made such a big deal over Washington and Lincoln’s birthdays had a lot to do with teaching about character and reputation.

Washington and Lincoln did not waiver. They were principled, rock-solid individuals with unshaken courage, strength and determination.

Charles Francis Adams noted about George Washington, “More than all, and above all, Washington was a master of himself.”

And of Abraham Lincoln, David Lloyd George observed, “If you look at his portraits they always give you an indelible impression of his great height. So does his life. Height of purpose, height of ideal, height of character, height of intelligence.”

As we prepare to officially honor all presidents on the third Monday of February, it is just fine with me that Washington and Lincoln still tug at our hearts. It is for a good reason.