Hail to the Chief!

*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian.

Four U.S. Presidents celebrated their birthdays this month. This is not the month with the largest number of presidential birthdays—that would be October, with 6 of our 45 presidents born that month, but February is the month traditionally associated with presidential birthdays, largely based on George Washington’s and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays falling this month. Currently, the 3rd Monday in February is called Presidents’ Day, February 17th, this year.

The Father of our Country was born on February 22, 1732 and died December 14, 1799.  As one might expect, given Washington’s larger-than-life status and importance to this country, as early as 1800 his birthday was remembered in celebration. The celebration was unofficial until the late 1870’s when it became a national holiday, but only for the District of Columbia. In 1885, it was expanded to the entire country.

Portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, c. 1821. This portrait hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.  Source: https://bit.ly/2OaBrQK

Portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, c. 1821. This portrait hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Source: https://bit.ly/2OaBrQK

The next February-born president was William Henry Harrison, born February 9, 1773.  Harrison set a lot of “records”—he was the oldest man elected president (this record did not stand—he was 67 when elected and 68 when sworn in; Reagan was 69 when elected), gave the longest inaugural address, 105 minutes, and had the shortest time in office, dying one month after that interminable inaugural address. This made him the first president to die in office. For years popular thought attributed his death to catching a cold that turned into pneumonia after refusing to wear a hat and coat on a blustery March inaugural day, but now there is some evidence that he died of typhoid fever.

2. William Henry Harrison

Portrait of William Henry Harrison, c. 1813. This portrait hangs in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Source: https://bit.ly/2GAjBCw

Abraham Lincoln was born February 12, 1809. Lincoln was the third president (after William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor) to die in office, but the first to be assassinated. Lincoln shares the same larger-than-life iconic status as Washington, and for years, his birthday was celebrated, but never as a federal holiday. “By 1890, Lincoln’s birthday was observed as a paid holiday in 10 states. According to one blog that tracks the holiday, in 1940 24 states and the District of Columbia observed Lincoln’s Birthday.

4. Abe Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln as a young man. This portrait is held by the National Park Service. Source: https://bit.ly/315cThs

Ronald Reagan is the final February birthday boy, born on February 6, 1911.  By the time of his 1980 election, the practice of celebrating presidential birthdays, at least on the federal level, had completely changed.

5. Ronald Reagan

Official Portrait of Ronald Reagan, c.1981-1983. Photographed by the White House Photographic Office. Source: https://bit.ly/3aQ6n2w

The shift from Washington’s Birthday to Presidents Day began in the late 1960s, when Congress proposed a measure known as the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. Championed by Senator Robert McClory of Illinois, this law sought to shift the celebration of several federal holidays from specific dates to a series of predetermined Mondays. The proposed change was seen by many as a novel way to create more three-day weekends for the nation’s workers, and it was believed that ensuring holidays always fell on the same weekday would reduce employee absenteeism. While some argued that shifting holidays from their original dates would cheapen their meaning, the bill also had widespread support from both the private sector and labor unions and was seen as a surefire way to bolster retail sales.  The Uniform Monday Holiday Act also included a provision to combine the celebration of Washington’s birthday with that of Abraham Lincoln, which fell on February 12. Lincoln’s Birthday had long been a state holiday in places like Illinois, and many supported joining the two days as a way of giving equal recognition to two of America’s most famous statesmen. McClory was among the measure’s major proponents, and he even floated the idea of renaming the holiday Presidents Day. This proved to be a point of contention for lawmakers from George Washington’s home state of Virginia, and the proposal was eventually dropped.

The law eventually passed in 1968 and went into effect in 1971 following an executive order by President Richard Nixon. The order specifically called the new holiday “Washington’s Birthday,” but it soon became known as Presidents’ Day. Retailers jumped in by promoting big sales and the new name stuck—most calendars now say Presidents’ Day, although interestingly, “the federal government has held fast to the original incarnation of the holiday as a celebration of the country’s first president. The third Monday in February is still listed on official calendars as Washington’s Birthday.” One curious outcome of this third Monday in February change is that Presidents’ Day will never fall on the actual birthday of Washington, Harrison, Lincoln, or Reagan—they were all born either too early or too late!

Two of the February-birthday presidents have a real connection with Indiana, and another has, at least, visited on a campaign swing. George Washington, given his time period, never came to Indiana which was neither a territory nor a state during his lifetime. Indiana was initially part of the Northwest Territory, which was created post-Revolutionary War, in 1787, so it’s probable that he was aware of this area in a general fashion, but a map of his travels shows him no further west than locations on what is now the West Virginia/Ohio border, along the Ohio River.

Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home in Mt. Vernon, VA, on the banks of the Rappahannock River. It was built by his father in 1834; George Washington took over its administration in 1854. What is seen here is the result of his efforts—an expansion of the house from 3500 sq. ft. to 11,00, and an expansion of the property from 3000 acres to 7600. Source: MSS 022-2939, John Doane collection.

Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home in Mt. Vernon, VA, on the banks of the Rappahannock River. It was built by his father in 1834; George Washington took over its administration in 1854. What is seen here is the result of his efforts—an expansion of the house from 3500 sq. ft. to 11,00, and an expansion of the property from 3000 acres to 7600. Source: MSS 022-2939, John Doane collection.

William Henry Harrison, prior to becoming elected president, was secretary of the Northwest Territory in 1798 and governor of the Indiana territory from 1801 to 1812. The Indiana territorial capital was near Vincennes, and his home, Grouseland, is still there and open to visitors. Harrison is also affiliated with the Lafayette area in his role in winning the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811. This victory led to his presidential campaign slogan, “Tippecanoe, and Tyler, too!” John Tyler was his running mate.

1. Grouseland

Grouseland, the home of William Henry Harrison in Vincennes, IN. It was built in 1804. This is the southern side and front. Source: https://bit.ly/2RCuSZn

Honest Abe was born in Kentucky, but his father moved the family to southwestern Indiana (now Spencer County) in December 1816. Lincoln grew to adulthood in Indiana—he was 21 when the family moved to Illinois in March 1830. He left part of his heart in Indiana—his mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, died in 1818 and is buried on the property, on what is now Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial. His older sister, Sarah Lincoln Grigsby, died in childbirth in 1828 and is buried in what is today Lincoln State Park. The state park and national memorial are adjacent.

This cabin is at the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial in Spencer County, IN. The Memorial contains a “Living Farm,” which contains no original structures from Lincoln’s time there, but rather is an attempt to depict what life would have been like on an 1820's Indiana farm.  Source: MSS 124-862, Eric Braysmith collection.

This cabin is at the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial in Spencer County, IN. The Memorial contains a “Living Farm,” which contains no original structures from Lincoln’s time there, but rather is an attempt to depict what life would have been like on an 1820’s Indiana farm. Source: MSS 124-862, Eric Braysmith collection.

MSS 124-858

Nancy Hanks Lincoln gravesite at the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial in Spencer County, IN. This is her actual gravesite, in the Pioneer Cemetery portion of the Memorial. She died in 1818 in her mid-30s from milk sickness, a disease caused by drinking milk produced by cows which have eaten white snakeroot, which poisons their milk. Her son was only 9 years old at the time of her death. The headstone seen here was erected in 1879 “by a friend of her martyred son.” Source: MSS 124-858, Eric Braysmith collection.

Ronald Reagan is probably far better known as being from California, given his profession as an actor and later two-term governorship of that state, but he initially was a Midwestern boy. He was born in Illinois and graduated from both high school and college there. It’s highly likely that he at some time visited Indiana, but this photograph proves that he was in Evansville during his second campaign (unsuccessful) to garner the presidential nomination in 1976.

MSS 034-1126

Ronald Reagan shaking the hand of a supporter at the airport in Evansville, IN April 27, 1976. He was on the campaign trail of his 2nd of 3 attempts to garner the U.S. presidential nomination. Source: MSS 034-1126, Gregory T. Smith collection.

Happy birthday, Mr. President!

Resources Consulted

Abraham Lincoln.  WhiteHouse.gov.

Bomboy, Scott. “How Abraham Lincoln Lost his Birthday Holiday.” Constitution Daily (National Constitution Center), February 12, 2019.

Bomboy, Scott. “What Really Killed the First President to Die in Office?” Constitution Daily (National Constitution Center), April 4, 2018.

George Washington’s Mount Vernon website—biography of George Washington.

McHugh, Jane and Philip A. Mackowiak. “What Really Killed William Henry Harrison?”  New York Times, March 31, 2014.

Presidents Day 2020. History.com editors. June 7, 2019.

Ronald Reagan. Miller Center, University of Virginia.

Ronald Reagan. WhiteHouse.gov.

William Henry Harrison. History.com editors.  August 21, 2018.

William Henry Harrison.  POTUS: Presidents of the United States.

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