by Kayla Conrad

George Washington was born on February 22, 1732. Beginning in 1800, the year after his death on December 14, 1799, Americans began to celebrate Washington’s Birthday on February 22nd. George Washington was venerated as the most important figure in American history at that time. 

In 1862, Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation declaring February 22 a day of celebration honoring George Washington. A federal holiday on February 22 was officially passed into law in 1879 for federal employees in Washington, D.C., and in 1885 the day became a paid holiday for all federal employees. Over time, it became a holiday for many state and business employees, too. 

The shift from Washington’s Birthday to Presidents’ Day occurred in the late 1960s, when Congress proposed a measure known as the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. This Act included a provision to combine the celebration of Washington’s birthday and Lincoln’s birthday (February 12, 1809) on the third Monday in February. 

Since 1862, there has been a tradition in the United States Senate that George Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address be read on his birthday. The address is a 6,000-word statement printed in Philadelphia’s American Daily Advertiser in which Washington sought to explain his decision not to run for a third term re-election. The National Constitution Center explains:

“. . . After two terms in office, Washington decided to retire from public life—clearing the way for the peaceful transfer of power from one President to another. This was one of the crowning achievements of the early American republic and an important precedent for future Presidents.  In his powerful valedictory address, Washington called for national unity and focused on threats at home and abroad. At home, Washington feared the rise of political factions. Abroad, he warned of the dangers of foreign entanglements. For Washington, both foreign influence and newly emerging political parties threatened liberty and undermined the promise of republican government. For the American republic to survive, the American people and their elected leaders had to commit to lives of civic republican virtue — valuing reason over passion and the public good over private self-interest.” 

Read Washington’s full address here.

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