Is it the President’s or the Presidents’ day?

February 21, 2011

As innocuous as President’s Day seems, it actually has quite a sordid history.Today in Legal History

Although it is widely known as “Presidents Day,” officially, under section 6103(a) of title 5 of the United States Code which specifies holidays for federal employees, the public holiday observed on the third Monday in February is called “Washington’s Birthday.”

So where did the confusion arise?

The holiday’s origins are harmless enough. In 1879, Congress added Washinton’s Birthday to four existing bank holidays that Congress had implemented in 1870.  At the time of its enactment, though, the holiday was observed on February 22, George Washington’s actual birthday, and was the first such federal holiday to single out one individual’s birthday.

The confusion over the title of the holiday began in 1968, when Congress decided that the federal holiday system needed an overhaul. This motivation stemmed from a belief (unsupported by any facts or data) that federal worker absenteeism could be minimized by such changes.

The act moved four federal holiday observances to Mondays: Memorial Day, Columbus Day, Veterans Day (which, after public outcry, was changed back to its original date in 1978), and, of course, Washington’s Birthday.

George WashingtonThe Congressional Record in 1968 revealed debate about the true purpose of the changes.  House Judiciary Committee member Representative Robert McClory, a Republican from Illinois, purported the benefits as helping families and reducing mid-week holiday interruptions in the workplace.

Conversely, Representative Harold Gross, a Republican from Iowa, countered that the change was intended to benefit retailers, and that the holiday would not extend to those employees.  Gross’s assertion, buttressed by the endorsements of the change from various business-related organizations, seemed to be on the right track.

Of course, a move to increase retail traffic would not, by itself, be responsible for the name confusion. It was McClory who originally tried to rename the holiday to “President’s Day” to gain the recognition of a national holiday for his home state of Illinois’s Abraham Lincoln.  Such a change was met with distaste in committee since not all Presidents were held in the same esteem as Washington, and the change was dropped.

Nevertheless, McClory gained a victory in the end. The date for observance was set as the third Monday in February, which always falls between February 15 and 21, never on Washington’s actual birthday.  This positioned the day of observance between Lincoln’s birthday (February 12) and Washington’s birthday.

Over time, and with help from, among other things, retailer marketing pushes in the 1980s seeking to extend the length of sale periods, Washington’s Birthday became Presidents Day in the public’s mind.

How truly significant is this dilution?  Is it a sign of America’s increasing commercialization or simply a series of coincidences?

Either way, there’s an irony at the end. While the public holiday is actually a President’s Day (i.e. Washington’s), you’d be hard-pressed to find a publication or writing guide that considers that singular form to be the correct usage.