Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Persistent Presidents' Day Myth

UPDATES (2/14/16): 

USA Today - Why Presidents' Day? 

Smithsonian Institute - "Presidents' Day" Doesn't Actually Exist

The American Spectator - The Presidents' Day Myth

Christian Science Monitor - Why does myth of US Presidents Day persist? (+video)

The federal holiday observed on the third Monday in February is officially Washington's Birthday. But many Americans believe incorrectly that this holiday is actually "Presidents' Day" in honor of both Presidents Washington and Lincoln, whose birthdays are February 22 and 12, respectively. Whichever name you give it may depend on the state you live in and how much television you watch.  Retail advertisers are the biggest promoters of the Presidents' Day moniker, which just goes to show you don't have to be intelligent to be in the advertising business.

States, of course, are not obliged to adopt federal holidays, which legally only affect federal offices and agencies. While most states have adopted Washington's Birthday, a handful officially celebrate Presidents' Day.  In the late 1870s, Senator Steven Wallace Dorsey (R-Arkansas) proposed the idea of adding Washington's birth date, February 22, to the four existing bank holidays previously approved in 1870.  Although signed into law January 31, 1879, by President Rutherford B. Hayes, Washington's Birthday wasn't legally adopted as a federal holiday until 1885.  Incidentally, Lincoln's Birthday never became a legal federal holiday.

In 1968, Congress passed the infamous Monday Holidays Act, which moved the official observance of Washington's birthday from February 22 to the third Monday in February in deference to the desire of federal employees to enjoy more tax-funded three-day holiday weekends. At the same time, reformers had wanted to change the name of the holiday, to Presidents' Day, but that proposal was rejected by Congress, and the holiday remained officially Washington's Birthday.  Nevertheless, there has been a persistent popular misconception that the day had been officially renamed, in effect diluting the reason for the day in the first place, which is to honor our first president.  It was Representative Dan Heflin Kuykendall (R-Tennessee) who cut to the heart of the matter. "If we do this, 10 years from now our schoolchildren will not know or care when George Washington was born. They will know that in the middle of February they will have a 3-day weekend for some reason. This will come."

Kuykendall's dire prediction came true. While the name change has never been authorized by Congress, it has gained a strong hold on the public consciousness, and is generally used on calendars, in advertising, and even incorrectly by many government agencies. Attempts have been made to legally require federal agencies to call the day Washington's Birthday, but to no avail.  The popular misconception appears to be ingrained in a society so easily misled by persistent media misinformation; the so-called "lemming effect."

According to C. L. Arbelbide, historian and storyteller specializing in federal holiday history and unique events associated with the White House, the U.S. Capitol, and the National Mall, advertisers have provided the main impetus in destroying the tradition of Washington's Birthday:
For advertisers, the Monday holiday change was the goose that laid the golden "promotional" egg. Using Labor Day marketing as a guide, three-day weekend sales were expanded to include the new Monday holidays. Once the "Uniform Monday Holiday Law" was implemented, it took just under a decade to build a head of national promotional sales steam.

Local advertisers morphed both "Abraham Lincoln's Birthday" and "George Washington's Birthday" into the sales sound bite "President's Day," expanding the traditional three-day sales to begin before Lincoln's birth date and end after Washington's February 22 birth. In some instances, advertisers promoted the sales campaign through the entire month of February. To the unsuspecting public, the term linking both presidential birthdays seemed to explain the repositioning of the holiday between two high-profile presidential birthdays.

After a decade of local sporadic use, the catchall phrase took a national turn. By the mid-1980s, the term was appearing in a few Washington Post holiday advertisements and an occasional newspaper editorial. Three "spellings" of the advertising holiday ensued—one without an apostrophe and two promoting a floating apostrophe. The Associated Press stylebook placed the apostrophe between the "t" and "s" ("President's Day"), while grammatical purists positioned the apostrophe after the "s" believing Presidents' deferred the day to the "many" rather than one singular "President."

Advertising had its effects on various calendar manufacturers who, determining their own spelling, began substituting Presidents' Day for the real thing. Eventually, when printed in the newspaper or seen on the calendar, few gave thought to its accuracy.
"By George, IT IS Washington's Birthday!" in Prologue Magazine, Winter 2004, Vol. 36, No. 4

Despite this popular mistake, Section 6103 of Title 5, United States Code, currently designates this legal federal holiday on the third Monday in February as "Washington's Birthday."

"His example is now complete, and it will teach wisdom and virtue to magistrates, citizens, and men, not only in the present age, but in future generations, as long as our history shall be read."
John Adams, Message to the U.S. Senate, December 19, 1799

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