Aerlex Law Group

Presidents’ Day February 19, 2024

A message from Aerlex founder, history buff (and President) Stephen Hofer

If you’re going to be enjoying three days off this coming weekend – in other words, if you’re observing Presidents’ Day – then you can thank Lyndon Johnson, or Richard Nixon, or George Washington, or even Abraham Lincoln, four of the 45 men who have served as President of the United States.

George Washington was born on February 22, 1732 (or February 11th, if you prefer the Julian calendar that was in use at that time of his birth instead of the Gregorian calendar that England and its American colonies adopted 20 years later).  Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809.  Washington and Lincoln have long been regarded as two of our greatest Presidents and their birthdays, separated by just 10 days, were both observed for decades.  Washington’s birthday became an unofficial American holiday almost as soon as the deeply revered Father of our Country died in December of 1799.  Ninety years later, in 1879, Congress made it an official federal holiday.  By contrast, Lincoln’s birthday was never a federal holiday, but it was legally celebrated in virtually every state of the North, i.e., the states that had fought to preserve the Union in the Civil War – although never south of the Mason-Dixon line.

In 1968, with strong support from the travel and leisure industry, Congress passed, and President Lyndon Johnson signed, the Uniform Monday Holiday Law to “provide uniform annual observances of certain legal public holidays on Mondays.”  This law shifted the observance of four specific holidays, Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, Columbus Day and Veterans Day, from their actual anniversaries to the Mondays closest to their original dates.  By creating more three-day weekends, Congress expressed a wish to “bring substantial benefits to both the spiritual and economic life of the Nation.”  One of the provisions of this act changed the observance of Washington’s Birthday from February 22nd to the third Monday in February.  Ironically, this guarantees that the holiday can never be celebrated on Washington’s actual birthday, as the third Monday in February cannot fall any later than February 21.

In February 1971, President Richard Nixon issued a proclamation renaming the Washington’s Birthday federal holiday as “Presidents’ Day” and said it was “set aside to honor all Presidents” – a bitter irony there since Nixon would resign in disgrace three years later at the culmination of the Watergate scandal, making him one of the country’s more dishonored chief executives.

So, how will Americans celebrate Presidents’ Day?

Many citizens will display the American flag on the front of their home to acknowledge the holiday.  Others may bake and eat cherry pies, an acknowledgement of the often-told tale associated with George Washington as a child.  The cherry tree myth, apparently invented in 1806 by an early Washington biographer named Mason Weems, is one of the best-known and most enduring legends about our first President – but it is a fiction.  In Weems’s telling, when Washington was 6 years old, he received a hatchet as a gift and proceeded to chop his father’s cherry tree with it.  When his father discovered the damage, he became angry and confronted his son.  Young George confessed, “I cannot tell a lie … I cut it with my hatchet.”  Washington’s father embraced his son and rejoiced that George’s honesty was worth more than 1,000 trees – an iconic tale of truth and virtue that helped further enhance Washington’s lofty reputation in the years just after his death – and ironically, a lie with absolutely no basis in historical fact.

How will you celebrate the holiday?  For some, including many Aerlex clients, it may be an occasion to board a private jet, owned or chartered, and fly to some exotic location to celebrate a long weekend, on the ski slopes perhaps or relaxing on a tropical beach.  For others rather less well-to-do, it may provide an occasion to visit museums or national landmarks that recognize our Presidents, study the history of our Presidents, or simply take the time to reflect on our nation’s history and values.

This year seems like an especially important time to be pondering the presidency and the important role it plays in our American constitutional system since we have now embarked upon the long campaign that will determine, on November 5, 2024, who will be the next President of the United States.  At this moment, it appears that, for only the second time in American history, two different men who have both held the office of President will be squaring off to see who serves a second term.  Today, everyone knows the names of Joseph Biden and Donald Trump, but it’s a pretty safe bet that most of you have forgotten the 1892 presidential election that saw former President Grover Cleveland defeat incumbent Benjamin Harrison, a rematch of the 1888 contest and a reversal that made Cleveland both the 22nd and 24th President, the only person (thus far) to serve two non-consecutive terms in the Oval Office.

However you choose to honor and celebrate our nation’s Presidents, enjoy this very special holiday, and remember all 45 men and 46 Presidents who have served and led our great nation.