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Commemoration of George Washington's Birthday

Since 1879, "George Washington's Birthday" has been a legal work holiday for employees of the Federal government in the District of Columbia. In 1885, the Federal holiday law was expanded to include all Federal employees.

State governments set their own holidays, and while most states and employers follow the lead of the Federal government in designating the third Monday of February as a holiday, only nine states currently identify “Washington's Birthday” as the sole commemorative event. Twenty-four states observe a "President's Day" as a holiday. In total, 41 states observe some form of holiday commemorating either the birth of Washington or "President's Day."

Some states honor Washington's Birthday or a Presidents Day in conjunction with celebrations also honoring Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson. Arkansas honors both George Washington and civil rights activist Daisy Gaston Bates. The states of Georgia and Indiana commemorate Washington's Birthday on December 24. New Mexico's "President’s Day" falls on the fourth Friday of November. Nine states have no legal holiday at all commemorating any president.

Americans, however, have celebrated George Washington's birthday long before it became an official holiday. Soldiers at Valley Forge in 1778 gathered to offer birthday wishes to their Commander-in- Chief. As early as 1779 the birthday was a cause for public celebration in Milton, Massachusetts.

In the early years of the nineteenth century in New York, Philadelphia, and Richmond public balls and dinners were important events for social elites, while public parades and demonstrations for the masses filled the city streets of the Republic, celebrating Washington's Birthday. In 1832, a Congressional committee invited Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Marshall to deliver an oration on February 22 to mark Washington's Birthday. The seventy-seven year old Marshall—too frail to physically speak—declined "the honor proposed" regretting his inability to mark "that great event."

The great American orator and abolitionist Edward Everett reminded his audience repeatedly of the words that Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to Washington that, "North and South will hang together while they have you to hang to." From 1856 to 1860, Everett read his Washington Birthday oration on some 129 occasions, donating $69,000 of the proceeds to Ann Pamela Cunningham’s, aiding her efforts to purchase Washington's Mount Vernon plantation.

In 1856, Massachusetts became the first state to formally recognize Washington's birthday as an official holiday. In response, the nation's oldest literary magazine, the North American Review, published an 1857 oration, proclaiming, "it would auger well for the Republic to observe it as a universal holiday." Under the cloud of war, Abraham Lincoln in 1862 called for Americans to "assemble in their customary places of worship" for a public reading of Washington's Farewell Address.

Both the Union and Confederacy attempted to claim Washington as their own. On Washington's Birthday, February 22, 1862, the government of the Confederate States of America was inaugurated in Richmond Virginia, with a drawing of sculptor Thomas Crawford's statue of Washington on horseback emblazoning the Great Seal of the Confederacy.

Medal from the Bicentennial of George Washington's birth

By 1932, the bicentennial year of Washington's birth, the American map contained a Federal capital, a state, 33 counties, 121 cities and towns, 257 townships, 1140 streets, roads, and avenues, one mountain, three colleges and universities, and uncounted schools and lakes—all named for Washington.

David Alan Rego

Bibliography
Bodnar, John E. Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Kammen, Michael G. Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture. New York: Knopf, 1991.

Lengel, Edward G. Inventing George Washington: America's Founder, in Myth and Memory. New York: Harper, 2011.

Newman, Simon P. Parades and the Politics of the Street: Festive Culture in the Early American Republic. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997

Schwartz, Barry. George Washington: The Making of an American Symbol. New York: Free Press, 1987.

Waldstreicher, David. In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism, 1776-1820. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.