So What Day Is it After All?
OK. We all do it. It's printed on calendars and displayed in bank windows. We mistakenly call the third Monday in February Presidents Day, in part because of all those annoying commercials in which George Washington uses his legendary ax and "Rail-splitter" Abe Lincoln swings his ax to chop down prices on everything from linens to SUVs.
But, really it is George Washington's Birthday -- federally speaking, that is. The official designation of the federal holiday observed on the third Monday of February was, and still is, Washington's Birthday.
But Washington's Birthday has become widely known as Presidents Day (or President's Day, or even Presidents' Day). The popular usage and confusion resulted from the merging of what had been two widely celebrated Presidential birthdays in February -- Lincoln's on February 12th, which was never a federal holiday-- and Washington's on February 22.
Created under the Uniform Holiday Act of 1968, which gave us three-day weekend Monday holidays, the federal holiday on the third Monday in February is technically still Washington's Birthday. But here's the rub: the holiday can never land on Washington's true birthday because the latest date it can fall is February 21, as it does in 2011.
Just because it is officially Washington's Birthday doesn't mean we can't talk about the other Presidents too. So here's a quick Presidential Pop Quiz:
- Who was the first President born an American citizen?
Martin van Buren, the eighth, also known as "Old Kinderhook," or "OK." All of his predecessors were born British subjects during the colonial era.
- Who was the first President to commit troops to a foreign country?
From 1801 to 1805, Thomas Jefferson sent the navy and marines to "Barbary" in what is modern day Libya, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia to attack the pirates who were preying on American and European shipping.
- Washington was the first general to become President. But how many other generals became President?
Besides Washington, five were career officers: Andrew Jackson (Creek War, War of 1812); William Henry Harrison (Battle of Tippecanoe); Zachary Taylor (Mexican War); Grant (Civil War); and Eisenhower (WW II). Six others were not career soldiers but attained the rank by appointment: Franklin Pierce, (Mexican War); Andrew Johnson, Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, Chester A. Arthur, and Benjamin Harrison (all of whom served in the Civil War).
Ironically, the two greatest war Presidents, Lincoln and Roosevelt, had little or no military experience. Lincoln was briefly in the Illinois militia, or national guard, during the Black Hawk War and later said he led a charge against an onion field and lost a lot of blood to mosquitoes.
During World War I, Roosevelt was Undersecretary of the Navy and had tried to enlist, but was asked to remain in his navy office. And many other Presidents had military experience but never attained the rank of general.
- Which President dodged the draft, legally?
During the Civil War, Grover Cleveland paid for a substitute when he was drafted. That was legal at the time under the 1863 Conscription Act.
- Which two Presidents died on the Fourth of July, 50 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed?
Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in 1826. James Monroe also died on July 4, 1831, and Calvin Coolidge was born in Vermont on Independence Day.
- Did President Lincoln write the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope?
That's the myth. But no, Lincoln drafted what may be the most memorable speech in American history several times. At Gettysburg for the dedication of a cemetery to the thousands who had died in the 1863 battle, Lincoln was not the featured speaker. That honor went to a man who spoke for two hours. Lincoln's address took about two and half minutes. But which one do we remember?
- Which President returned to the House of Representatives after his term? John Quincy Adams
Many of these questions are drawn from "Don't Know Much About History" or my children's book"Don't Know Much About the Presidents"
You can also visit the White House Presidents page for quick "official" biographies.