Happy George Washington’s Birthday!

George Washington, copy of painting by Gilbert Stuart, 1931-1932. (National Archives Identifier: 532888)

George Washington led the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, presided over the Constitutional Convention, and served as the first President of the United States. He is known, quite rightfully, as the Father of our Country.

Washington was born in Virginia on February 11, 1731, according to the then-used Julian calendar. In 1752 Britain and all its colonies adopted the Gregorian calendar, which moved Washington’s birthday a year and 11 days.

That puts Washington’s birthday on February 22, 1732.

Americans have long celebrated Washington’s Birthday. The centennial of his birth in 1832 was marked by nationwide celebrations, festivals, and parades. Congress even established a committee to arrange for the occasion and adjourned from February 21 to 23 to participate in the festivities.

On January 31, 1879, Congress added February 22 to the list of holidays to be observed by federal employees in the District of Columbia. Congress later extended the holiday to all federal government employees, including those outside the Washington, DC area.

S. 623, A bill to make the 22nd day of February George Washington’s Birthday, 1878. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

Washington’s Birthday was celebrated on February 22 until well into the 20th century. In 1968, however, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act to “provide uniform annual observances of certain legal public holidays on Mondays.” By creating more three-day weekends, Congress hoped to “bring substantial benefits to both the spiritual and economic life of the Nation.”

One of the provisions in this act changed the observance of Washington’s Birthday from February 22 to the third Monday in February. Ironically, this guaranteed that the holiday would never be celebrated on Washington’s actual birthday, as the third Monday in February cannot fall any later than February 21 (this year it falls on February 20).

The act also moved Memorial Day to the last Monday in May, Labor Day to the first Monday in September, Columbus Day to the second Monday in October, and Veterans Day to the fourth Monday in October (although due to national outcry, Congress returned Veterans Day to November 11 beginning in 1978—a day historically known as Armistice Day, when World War I ended).

George Washington’s Birthday is still celebrated as a federal holiday on the third Monday in February. While some states celebrate February 22 as “Presidents Day,” the official federal holiday continues to be known as George Washington’s Birthday. Happy George Washington’s Birthday!

Read more in a the Prologue magazine article: By George, IT IS Washington’s Birthday!

Want to hear George Washington in a lively discussion with Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt? Join us for An Evening with the Mount Rushmore Presidents in the William G. McGowan Theater at the National Archives in Washington, DC, on Thursday, February 16, 2017, at 7:00 pm. Or view it on our YouTube Channel.

Interested in more archival sources relating to our first President? Visit the George Washington page on the Social Networks and Archival Context (SNAC) website. 

Mount Rushmore National Memorial showing sculpting of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, 1938. (National Archives Identifier: 7003754)

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