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Celebrating Presidents: From the Obvious to the Obscure

A look at the history of Presidents' Day and some lesser known facts about some less celebrated presidents.

Quick, what's today? Presidents Day, the federal holiday that's probably known more for car dealership specials and being the driving force behind schools' winter break than for anything else, right?

But technically, in the eyes of the U.S. government, it's not.

The federal holiday introduced as Washington's Birthday in 1885 is still called Washington's Birthday.

To make matters more confusing, today isn't actually Washington's Birthday, and the holiday now never falls on his real birthday; he was born Feb. 22, 1732 (and even that's not quite true, since the calendar observed by the English colonies switched from the Julian to the Gregorian in 1752).

In 1971, the holiday recognizing his birth was shifted to the third Monday in February by the Uniform Monday Holiday Act (not making up that name). There was talk of a renaming at the same time as the shift, but that never happened.

And that's where the trouble began. 

The aim of the act was to streamline holidays for federal government workers, and turn as many of them as possible into three-day weekends. But the only people bound to observe federal holidays are federal employees. Most states follow along with federal holiday designations, but when it came to Washington's Birthday, many didn't.

Some states went for the shift to third-Monday observance but adopted the idea of a holiday to celebrate all presidents. Because there's no set rule for what to call it, it's variably called Presidents Day and Presidents' Day, and sometimes, incorrectly, President's Day, which makes grammarians twitch.

Some states also kept recognizing Lincoln's birthday on Feb. 12, too, though that was never a federal holiday. And some have weird hybrids, like Washington-Lincoln day.

So really, unless you're a federal employee, whether you have off or not and what you call the day comes down to where you live. In New Jersey, it's Presidents Day.

But don't try to drive that point home with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.

As the department's website pointedly says in a footnote to its calendar, "this holiday is designated as 'Washington’s Birthday' in section 6103(a) of title 5 of the United States Code, which is the law that specifies holidays for Federal employees. Though other institutions such as state and local governments and private businesses may use other names, it is our policy to always refer to holidays by the names designated in the law."

Bit snooty about it, no?

So instead of lauding the courage of Washington and Lincoln, the leadership of Truman and Eisenhower, the revolution of Reagan or the boom years of Clinton, Patch will take a moment to tread down the road less travelled. Here we present the five most obscure facts about the five most obscure American Presidents (and one "almost President")  of all time.

  • Millard Filmore, in office July 9, 1850 through March 4, 1853, was the last member of the Whig party to serve as President. Despite being a native of New York State, he opposed Abraham Lincoln’s decision to engage in the Civil War.
  • Benjamin Harrison, in office March 4, 1881 through March 4, 1887, defeated incumbent Democrat Grover Cleveland, and is best known for being the President who signed the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, which is the basis for all modern anti-trust legislation. He’s also the grandson of fellow poorly-known President William Henry Harrison.
  • Warren G. Harding’s time in office - March 4, 1921 through Aug. 2, 1923 – didn’t end well. He died in California while on his way back to Washington, D.C. from a trip to Alaska. Before becoming President, Harding was a newspaper publisher.
  • Martin Van Buren, in office March 4, 1837 through March 4, 1841, was the first President who was not of British descent. His lineage was Dutch. He was also one of the original organizers of the modern Democratic party. Van Buren will forever be known to modern Americans as the President who inspired a fictional street gang, “The Van Buren Boys” on the TV comedy Seinfeld. The group’s gang sign consisted of flashing the number eight with one’s fingers, symbolizing Van Buren’s position as the nation’s eighth President.
  • Finally, Thomas E. Dewey never became President, despite the historical newspaper headline gaffe which would have had Americans believe otherwise. The 47th governor of New York was known as a liberal Republican who mostly supported Democrat Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal social welfare programs. And yes, he did, indeed, lose his Presidential bid to President Harry S. Truman.

Related Topics: President's Day

Debbie Brew February 21, 2012 at 03:23 AM
Well, being a descendent of Martin Van Buren, I will take "obscure" as a compliment, like....ummm...unique! Yes, I am related to the 8th President on my maternal grandfathers side and proud to say he was the FIRST President born in the United States of America. My children love the little known fact that he invented the phrase, "OK". He was from Old Kinderhook, NY and the group that rallied to get him elected was called "The Old Kinderhook or O.K. club" and their slogan was "Voting for Van Buren is OK!" We were thrilled when the Seinfeld episode aired and frequently use the sign ourself! LOL! Thanks for mentioning ol' GranPappy!
Marjorie Smith February 21, 2012 at 09:26 AM
And I thought President's Day was created so we could have another shopping extravanganza to get those retailers in the black!!!
Christina Johnson (Editor) February 21, 2012 at 12:48 PM
That is so interesting! Thanks for sharing.
Christina Warren February 22, 2012 at 12:01 AM
That is soooo cool! We have some pretty awesome ancestral stories from our locals! Thank you for sharing.
Lisa February 18, 2013 at 01:04 PM
And he inspired the Van Buren boys gang on Seinfeld. I'm sure you know the secret sign too.
Lisa February 18, 2013 at 06:21 PM
Van Buren was the most unfortunate looking president; maybe he was descended from Neanderthals?
Robert Yates February 18, 2013 at 06:23 PM
His house in OK also has a sweet tower connected to it. It's a great place to visit.
Lisa February 19, 2013 at 03:04 AM
Exactly. Who cares which dead president you say you're related to, it's all about the savings -- I got a great new mattress today!
Lisa February 19, 2013 at 03:07 AM
I got a great president's day sale off my mattress because I flashed the Van Buren boys gang signal! It sure does help to be "related" to the most unfortunate looking dude!
Dentss Dunnagun February 19, 2013 at 03:29 PM
Hey that funny I flashed the Obama signal ,and the owner let me have the mattress for free he said don't worry I'll get the next guy to pay for it ........
NJarhead February 19, 2013 at 03:53 PM
Did he also give you a prayer rug and a free trip to kenya?
Peter Koenig February 19, 2013 at 05:56 PM
It is a bit worrisome that you consider Thomas Deweyone of the most obscure historical figures in American history. If I may, a muffled shout out for the Red Fox of Kinderhook. Not a Conscience Whig (like me), but at least a half-hearted Free Soiler. And - don't mess with Henry Clay or Jersey Boy Theodore Frelinghuysen, or I will have to post again.
B Ross February 19, 2013 at 10:07 PM
Why in earth were the schools open on Presidents' Day but closed for that phony appeasement holiday MLK?
marylou February 19, 2013 at 10:23 PM
Schools were open for BOTH MLK Day and President's Day thie year to make up fopr the days lost when they were without power because of Sandy.Depending on the number of snow days necessary,they may also be open for all or part of what is supposed to be spring break.Happy now???
Grumpy19 February 21, 2013 at 10:50 PM
I have researched Presidents Day on the web. I don't see how all of these sights can get it so wrong. Washingtons Birthday was always February 21, not the 22. Presidents Day was created because of the fact that there were two holidays in February that honored Washington and Lincoln's birthdays. The two holidays were combined ito one due to February being the shortest month of the years with two holidays for the same purpose. I lived through this change. I got married on February 21, when it was still Washington's Birthday. As for MLK Day. I do not agree with it nor did I ever.
Grumpy19 February 22, 2013 at 02:29 PM
I have to correct myself. I made a mistake as to the date of Washington's actual birthday. I was thinking of something else when I made the wrong date statement.
Joe Mattola February 22, 2013 at 10:16 PM
Schools in Rumson were closed on MLK but open on Presidents' Day! Marylou you are a liar and a phony lib.

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