Only two Americans have been honored with individual federal holidays. The original intent was to recognize them on their birthdays.
Washington’s birthday holiday came about seventy years after his death. Martin Luther King died in 1968; King’s birthday was approved as a federal holiday in 1983, and all 50 states made it a state government holiday by 2000.
George Washington, the country’s first president, was born February 22, 1732 (Gregorian). He served as president from April 30, 1789 to March 4, 1797.
On January 31, 1879, the US House and Senate enacted a law authorizing February 22 as a legal holiday within the District of Columbia. In 1885, they made February 22 a paid holiday for federal workers.
Washington’s Birthday was celebrated on February 22 from 1879 until 1971. By 1890, Abraham Lincoln’s birthday was observed as a paid holiday in 10 states (in 1940, 24 states and the District of Columbia observed Lincoln’s Birthday), however it never officially became a federal holiday.
In 1951, a Californian named Harold Stonebridge Fischer formed the President’s Day National Committee with the intention of creating a holiday that would honor the office of the presidency, but no particular president.
He lobbied Congress, proposing March 4, the original Inauguration Day, as the date for “Presidents’ Day,” but the bill to make it happen became stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee. (American Spectator)
Adopted in 1968 and effective January 1, 1971, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act that moved certain federal holidays dates – Washington’s Birthday was moved to the third Monday in February.
There was debate on changing the holiday name to ‘Presidents’ Day’. An early draft of the enabling bill would have renamed the Washington’s Birthday holiday “Presidents’ Day” to honor both Washington and Lincoln, whose birthday is on February 12 and has never been a national holiday. (American Spectator)
Opponents were not convinced. It had been Illinois Representative Robert McClory – a representative from “the land of Lincoln” – who had attempted in committee to rename “Washington’s Birthday” as “President’s Day.” The bill stalled.
The Wall Street Journal reported: “To win more support, Mr. McClory and his allies dropped the earlier goal of renaming Washington’s Birthday [as] Presidents’ Day, [which] mollified some Virginia lawmakers. He also agreed to sweeten the package by including Columbus Day as a Federal holiday, a goal sought for years by Italian-American groups.”
“It was the collective judgment of the Committee on the Judiciary,” stated Mr. William Moore McCulloch (Ohio) “that this [naming the day “President’s Day”] would be unwise. Certainly, not all Presidents are held in the same high esteem as the Father of our Country.”
“There are many who are not inclined to pay their respects to certain Presidents. Moreover, it is probable that the members of one political party would not relish honoring a President from the other political party whether he was in office, no matter how outstanding history may find his leadership.” (Archives-gov)
President Richard Nixon did not, as a widely circulated Internet story claims, issue a proclamation changing the holiday’s name from Washington’s Birthday to Presidents’ Day. His Executive Order 115 on February 10, 1971, merely announced the new federal holiday calendar, as passed by Congress in 1968. (Archives-gov)
According to Prologue, the magazine of the National Archives, it was a local department-store promotion that went national when retailers discovered that, mysteriously, generic Presidents clear more inventory than particular ones, even the Father of His Country. Now everybody thinks it’s official, but it’s not. (The New Yorker)
So, while we celebrate “Presidents’ Day.” it really isn’t officially called that (at least at the national legislative level).
The Uniform Monday Holiday Act is still in effect – and it’s officially “Washington’s Birthday.” (Some States (including Hawai‘i) refer to it as “Presidents’ Day” and it is a State and Federal holiday.)