Cindy L. Arbelbide, a historian of holidays, has written, “Historic dates, like stepping stones, create a footpath through our heritage. Experienced by one generation and recalled by those to come, it is through these annual recollections that our heritage is honored.” The celebration of the birthday of George Washington began during his lifetime and continued after his death. He was born on February 11, 1731 in Westmoreland County, Virginia, under the Julian calendar, which was then in use. However, when the British Empire switched to the Gregorian calendar in 1752, that moved his birthday to February 22, 1732. Thus, February 22 was long celebrated as Washington’s Birthday. It was so widely celebrated in the nation that it became a Federal holiday in 1879. At that time, it and other Federal holidays were only observed by Federal agencies in Washington, DC, but this was expanded to their observation by Federal agencies all across the country in 1885.
The reason for this is that Washington was considered to be the Father of His Country. When I worked as an Archives Technician at the National Archives, I gave a lecture on records related to George Washington at that agency. As I studied him, it became apparent to me why he is considered so. He was the foremost hero of both the French and Indian War, in which he served as commander of the Virginia forces, and the Revolutionary War, in which he served as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. It was his persistence against overwhelming odds which won the latter. At the war’s end in 1783, Washington resigned his commission, giving up all his power.
Washington said, “When we assumed the soldier we did not lay aside the citizen.” He maintained his stance that the army should be under civil control against those who wanted the army to take over the civil government and to make him king. He also gave up all his power at the end of the Revolutionary War and returned to civilian life. His former opponent, King George III, said that Washington’s resignation “placed him in a light the most distinguished of any man living.” He also called Washington “the greatest character of the age.”
At his home, Mount Vernon, Washington coauthored the Fairfax County Resolves with George Mason in 1774. Mason incorporated many of its principles into the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776. In turn, many of the principles in the Virginia Declaration of Rights were incorporated into both the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. During his first administration as President, the Bill of Rights was passed, which guaranteed U.S. citizens protection from an over-reaching Federal Government. He also held a meeting at Mount Vernon calling for a new Constitution. The Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, of which Washington was President, wrote that Constitution. He then became the first President of the United States of America. His refusal to run for a third term as President saw him relinquish power a second time.
The World War II generation has been called the Greatest Generation. It certainly was a great generation, but the Founding Fathers were also a great generation. They were the team which created the United States, but without a doubt, George Washington was the leader of that team and the glue which held it together. No wonder historian James Thomas Flexner called Washington the “indispensable man.”
Upon Washington’s death, Major General Henry Lee, who served under him in the Revolution, said that he was “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” And even now, former Senator William W. Bradley (D-NJ) has said that he is still first in the hearts of his countrymen. President Calvin Coolidge said it best: “Washington was the directing spirit, without which there would have been no independence, no Union, no Constitution, and no republic….We still cannot yet estimate him.”
The four major documents of America’s founding which were originally taught were the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and George Washington’s Farewell Address. Today, Washington’s Farewell Address is no longer taught with the other three. When it is replaced with something else, it is replaced with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. It used to be that Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington would hang in every school classroom and that schools would include teaching about Washington every year before the celebration of Washington’s Birthday. There were Washington’s Birthday greeting cards sent and cherry pie served on that day in celebration of it. However, today, it is sometimes hard to find cherry pies in grocery stores in February and the greeting cards are no longer sold. We no longer see pictures of Washington in school classrooms at all or hear of Washington’s Birthday in February. Instead, we hear of Presidents’ Day.
The Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1971 moved Federal holidays to the closest Monday. The Federal Washington’s Birthday holiday was moved from February 22 to the third Monday in February. This was to promote business and commerce, which led to the stores being open on these days. Previously, they had been closed in observance of Washington’s Birthday and other Federal holidays, but the new Act led them to remain open to make money from sales. The concept of Presidents’ Day was begun by the retail industry in the 1980’s by combining Washington’s Birthday with Lincoln’s Birthday to create the day as a promotion for sales.
There is an urban legend that the Federal holiday was changed to Presidents’ Day when it was moved to the third Monday in February, but it was not. The Federal Holiday Schedule put out by the Office of Personnel Management still cites the day as Washington’s Birthday. It states:
“This holiday is designated as ‘Washington’s Birthday’ in section 6103(a) of title 5 of the United States Code, which is the law that specifies holidays for Federal employees. Though other institutions such as state and local governments and private businesses may use other names, it is our policy to always refer to holidays by the names designated in the law.”
Many states have changed the day. Of the Southern states, Virginia, Georgia, Mississippi, and Missouri still celebrate the day as Washington’s Birthday. Alabama celebrates it as both Washington’s and Jefferson’s Birthday and Arkansas celebrates it as Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gaston Bates Day. The latter was a civil rights leader. South Carolina celebrates the day as both Washington’s Birthday and Presidents’ Day. Maryland, West Virginia, Tennessee, Texas, and Oklahoma, celebrate it as Presidents’ Day. North Carolina, Florida, Kentucky, and Louisiana no longer celebrate it at all as anything, though Louisiana celebrates Mardi Gras as a state holiday on February 21. These states are foregoing any celebration of the day by replacing it with a day off for spring break. When Congress established the day in 1971, calendars used to cite the day as Washington’s Birthday (Observed), Today, nearly all calendars cite the day as Presidents’ Day.
One reason for the decline of the observance of Washington’s Birthday is obvious. In the wake of “wokeness,” the country’s entire heritage is being trashed, with the trashing of Confederate heritage spearheading the process. For example, and editorial in the Washington Post declared that the names of both Washington and Robert E. Lee should be taken off of Washington and Lee University because both were slaveholders. This is a prime illustration. This in spite of the fact that both Washington and Lee favored gradual emancipation of the slaves. (For more on this, see the author’s previous blog, “Attacking George Washington.”) Cyrus R. Edmonds, who wrote a two-volume biography of Washington, correctly said of him, “The elements of his greatness are chiefly to be discovered in the moral features of his character.” Thomas Jefferson wrote of Washington:
“His integrity was most pure, his justice the most inflexible I have ever known. No motives…of friendship or hatred being able to bias his decision. He was, indeed, in every sense of the word, a wise, a good and great man. It may be truly said that never did nature and fortune combine more perfectly to make a man great, and to place him in the same constellation with whatever worthies have merited from man an everlasting remembrance.”
Recognizing this, Dr. D. James Kennedy characterized Washington’s detractors correctly when he said, “They are like pygmies trying to hatchet a giant down to their own size – moral degenerates trying to throw mud at a pure and noble character because they can’t stand the fact that he was not like they are.” He also quoted E. Merrill Root as saying:
“They are always seeking to deflect truth and shock men, to reverse and pull apart, to destroy by ‘debunking.’ They are not content with the truth, but lust for the trick; they seek fame by destroying fame….The Greeks had an image for it: There was a man of merit, who therefore burned down the most beautiful of buildings, so that he might live in the fame of infamy. In the dawn of the twentieth century such men began to multiply in the land, raising and training a guerilla army of smilers with the knife, hero-mockers, vivisectors of value, haters of life, ‘debunkers,’ pint-sized Vandals of the mind, termites in the timbers of culture, who (having no greatness) resented all greatness…who, since they could not create, lusted to destroy. Like the fungus of decay, like the rust that eats pure metal, like the moths that devour the lustrous fabric (mere bellies with gray wings!), they lusted to devour and destroy and corrode and tarnish. They sought to shout a ‘No’ to life and to love. And these ‘debunkers’ were, and always are, of the Devil’s party. They act as they do because they are little, and know it; because they are sick, and know it. They cannot endure that there should be greatness, because they are not great; they cannot endure that there should be goodness, for they are not good. They cannot revere a master, for they are not artists. If they could see George Washington for what he [was and] is, they could not bear to see themselves as they are; [therefore] they hate him because he shames them.”
There are those today who wrongfully assert that Washington was not a Christian, but that he was a deist. This assertion is totally false. John Marshall said of George Washington, “Without ostentatious professions of religion, he was a sincere believer in the Christian faith, and a truly devout man.” A whole blog could be written on this subject alone, but the best work which establishes the case that Washington was a Christian is George Washington’s Sacred Fire by Peter A. Lillback with Jerry T. Newcombe (Bryn Mawr, PA: Providence Forum Press, 2006).
Furthermore, the idea of combining Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays is absurd. Washington led a secession movement from the British Empire. Lincoln later opposed a similar secession movement and committed usurpations many of which were the same or similar to those laid out in the Declaration of Independence. While Washington himself had no children, his brothers and half brothers did. When the war came in 1861, sixteen of their descendants fought for the Confederacy, eight of them dying in battle. Not one of them fought for the North. One of them was John Augustine Washington III, the last Washington living in George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, before it was sold to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. It was in the Washington family until that time. He served as a Lieutenant Colonel and aide-de-camp on the staff of General Robert E. Lee, who was a distant cousin of his. In a letter written in July 1861, Lieutenant Colonel Washington stated, “In fact the Yankees are for the most part a set of plundering fellows, who will steal and bully when they can and do as little fighting as possible.” Sadly, he was killed in action at the Battle of Cheat Mountain, Virginia (now West Virginia) on September 13, 1861. He was buried in the graveyard of Zion Episcopal Church in Charles Town, Virginia (now West Virginia), where over 70 other Washington family members are buried. There is an inscription honoring him and his Confederate service at the New Tomb at Mount Vernon, where George and Martha Washington and other family members are buried. For more on this, see “George Washington’s Confederate Family” by Loy Mauch in the May/June 2020 issue of Confederate Veteran.
In 1853, Louisa Dalton Bird Cunningham was on a steamship returning from Philadelphia to her home in Laurens District, South Carolina. When the ship passed Mount Vernon, she was appalled to see what a dilapidated state it was in. The piazza was being held up by ship’s masts and weeds were everywhere. She wrote a letter about it to her daughter Ann Pamela Cunningham. In it, she expressed to her the sentiment that if the men were going to let the home and burial place of George Washington go to ruin, it was time for the patriotic ladies to come together to rescue Mount Vernon. Inspired by her belief in republican government, Ann answered her mother’s challenge by writing a letter to the editor of the Charleston Mercury urging the ladies of the South to do so. She addressed it “To the Ladies of the South” and signed it “A Southern Matron.” It was republished in newspapers all across the United States and the appeal was extended to ladies across the nation. As a result, she founded the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, which saved Mount Vernon and still owns and maintains it to this day. Shortly before her death, Ann Pamela Cunningham left that organization with this charge: “Ladies, the Home of Washington is in your charge; see to it that you keep it the Home of Washington. Let no irreverent hand change it; no vandal hands desecrate it with the fingers of progress!”
Today, those fingers claiming to be working for progress have desecrated Washington’s Birthday. After the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1971 changed Veterans Day to the closest Monday, pressure by veterans’ groups led to the restoration of that day to November 11 in 1978. Similarly, Washington’s Birthday needs to be moved back to February 22. This will separate it from Presidents’ Day and restore it to the respect and honor which it, and which George Washington, deserves. As with Mount Vernon, it needs to begin with those of us in the South, because we are the ones who understand this the most.
Cindy L. Arbelbide, “By George, IT IS Washington’s Birthday!” Prologue, Vol. 36, No. 4, Winter 2004. By George, IT IS Washington’s Birthday! | National Archives
2023 Holiday Schedule; Policy, Data, Oversight; Pay & Leave. U.S. Office of Personnel Management. Federal Holidays (opm.gov)
Timothy A. Duskin, “History Crush: George Washington.” Pieces of History, National Archives, April 15, 2012. History Crush: George Washington – Pieces of History (archives.gov)
Timothy A. Duskin, “Attacking George Washington.” Abbeville Institute, July 20, 2022. Attacking George Washington – Abbeville Institute
- James Kennedy, What They Believed: The Faith of Washington, Jefferson & Lincoln. Fort Lauderdale, FL: Coral Ridge Ministries, 2003. (Note: While the chapters on Washington and Jefferson in this book are both very good, the one on Lincoln is not and repeats many apocryphal stories.)
Brandon Hasbrouck, “Opinion: Both namesakes of Washington and Lee University perpetrated racial terror. The school should be renamed.” Washington Post, July 4, 2000. Opinion | Both namesakes of Washington and Lee University perpetrated racial terror. The school should be renamed. – The Washington Post
James H. Johnston, “The Confederate Washingtons.” New York Times, February 15, 2014. The Confederate Washingtons – The New York Times (nytimes.com)
Loy Mauch, “George Washington’s Confederate Family.” Confederate Veteran, Vol. 78, No. 3, May/June 2020 pp. 20-23, 60-62.
Saving Mount Vernon: The Birth of Preservation in America. DVD. Directed by John Harrington. Mount Vernon, VA: Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, 2003.
Ann Pamela Cunningham: The Woman Who Saved George Washington’s Home. George Washington’s Mount Vernon, YouTube. Ann Pamela Cunningham: The Woman Who Saved George Washington’s Home – YouTube
Thank you for this, Timothy.
I have always considered the joining of the tyrant Lincoln with the patriot George Washington on Washington’s birthday an affront to common decency.
Somewhat related, I recall a comment that was posted on a you tube video that I ran across not long ago. This video played Dixie among other southern songs while showing a slide show of pics from the era, paintings, etc.
One pic that flashed by was of the Confederate States of America seal. A woke poster with nothing else to do apparently was enjoying throwing darts in their commentary at everything southern finishing with a jabbing question about the seal; “Why is George Washington in that Confederate seal?”.
I dare to say the Confederate government was not confused at all by the situation when it chose George Washington as the centerpiece. It was more than appropriate.
It’s a shame that more people do not only know but appreciate and value true history.