Washington’s Birthday


Stuart Portrait of George Washington

“When Congress, in January 1879, added George Washington’s Birthday to the list of holidays to be observed in the District of Columbia, the principal intent of that resolution was to make February 22 “a bank holiday.” Although there is no indication in the authorizing statutes of 1870 and 1879 (or in the accompanying floor debates) that any federal employees were to be paid for such holidays, an analysis of holiday legislation subsequently signed by President Rutherford B. Hayes in April 1880 seems to support such a conclusion. This legislation was prompted by a grievance filed by a group of employees who had been denied holiday pay for the previous New Year’s Day while other federal workers had been paid for the day. The House committee which favorably reported the bill stressed that while there were no existing laws requiring such payment, this group of employees, “in the committee’s opinion, should be placed upon an equality in this regard” with those of other government departments. The committee went on to point out that, on the “question of legal holidays,” the Revised Statutes of the United States were silent, but those relating to the District of Columbia were very precise on the issue. The implication was that the other federal employees in the District had already been paid for the holiday.
Such reasoning is substantiated by an opinion issued by Acting Attorney General James C. McReynolds in August 1903. McReynolds indicated that, for “many years” prior to 1870, it was “customary to close the Executive Departments of the Government at Washington” on five holidays—New Year’s Day, George Washington’s Birthday, Independence Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas Day—that had been “declared to be such by District laws.”

This practice, McReynolds reasoned, “must have been known to the Congress, and it must have been that those days were declared public holidays only by laws
applicable to the District.” As a consequence, McReynolds concluded that Congress intended with the 1870 and 1879 statute “to designate all days made holidays by any law in effect within the District of Columbia” to be such for employees of the federal government as well. This was done, even though Congress, as late as the turn of the 8 century, had yet to enact legislation “absolutely requiring that the Executive Departments of the Government to be closed and the clerks and other employees therein to be released from work on such days.”

In 1885, Congress approved additional legislation making the five holidays thus far approved also applicable to per diem employees of the government “on duty at
Washington, or elsewhere in the United States.” This act, apparently for the first time, extended at least limited holiday benefits to federal employees beyond the
shores of the Potomac River. Enactment of the Monday Holiday Law in 1968 shifted the commemoration of Washington’s Birthday from February 22 to the third Monday in February. Contrary to popular belief, neither the Monday Holiday Law, nor any subsequent action by Congress or the President, mandated that the name of the holiday observed by federal  employees in February be changed from Washington’s Birthday to Presidents Day. ” [bold font added by Dr. Rempel rather than taken from the text of the report]

Excerpted from Stephen W. Stathis (1999)Federal Holiday: Evolution and Application. CRS Report for Congress