Memory  /  Origin Story

President’s Day Is a Weird Holiday. It Has Been Since the Beginning.

How should a republic honor its leaders?

For centuries before John Adams’s presidency, Britons had been celebrating the monarch’s birthday, although the date wasn’t made an official holiday until 1748, under King George III’s grandfather. After declaring independence, most Americans stopped observing this holiday, but felt keenly the loss of the celebration.

By the winter of 1778, Americans had found an alternative. Soldiers encamped at Valley Forge threw celebrations in honor of George Washington’s birthday. The irony was not lost on some observers that Americans who had toasted George III just a few years prior were now shouting rowdy huzzahs for the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army fighting to dethrone the king in the American colonies.

The celebrations continued for the duration of the war and Americans quickly resumed the practice after Washington was inaugurated as the first president of the United States in 1789. For example, on February 22, 1790, ten months into Washington’s presidency, the Society of St. Tammany held an elaborate celebration in New York City, featuring thirteen toasts including “The glorious 4th of July, 1776. The birth of American Independence.”

These observances were not limited to the city of Washington’s residence. Gadsby’s Tavern in Alexandria, Virginia—a town with which he had had a close association for forty years since his days as a surveyor—held an annual birthnight ball in his honor, regardless of whether he was able to attend. Other taverns across the country did likewise.

After Washington retired from the presidency in 1797, these celebrations became more contested as they acquired new meaning. No longer were the commemorations about Washington’s office or the position, but rather a glorification of the person. Washington and Adams’s contemporaries immediately understood the difference and squabbled over the significance.

Adams and his supporters, including his wife, viewed the event on February 22, 1798 at Oillers Hotel as inappropriate for a republic and an insult to the sitting president. Many fans of Washington insisted they were simply recognizing his enormous contributions to the nation. Democratic-Republicans were happy to both criticize the valorization of the first president and gloat over the tensions in the Federalist party.

A few days after the ball, James Madison wrote to Thomas Jefferson, “The late birthnight has certainly sown tares” among the Federalists. “It has winnowed the grain from the chaff. The sincerely Adamites did not go. The Washingtonians went religiously, & took the secession of the others in high dudgeon.”

Although the founding generation disagreed about the propriety of a president’s day celebration, their descendants did not. For the next sixty years, Americans continued to hold Washington birthday celebrations uninterrupted.