A cold northwestern wind blew across the clear skies of the Virginia Chesapeake on February 22, 1799. Unlike so many frigid birthdays before, this one George Washington spent at home, happy and at peace.
As with so much else in his adult life, Washington was usually too busy serving his country to linger over enjoying the anniversary of his birth (as birthdays were sometimes called then). Americans grateful for his sacrifices celebrated for him. They started commemorating February 22 in the late 1770s, even as the already widely-proclaimed “father of his country” commanded a fledging army marred in an intractable and seemingly impossible war. Probably the worst of Washington’s birthdays came in 1778, in the wretched desolation of Valley Forge. In mid-February and in desperation Washington reached out to Virginia Governor Patrick Henry. Supplying the Continental Army lay beyond Henry’s duties, he understood. But the situation, the general told the governor, “is more deplorable, than you can easily imagine.” The soldiers had long since passed the point of simply being deprived; famine was spreading through the camp and Washington feared “a general mutiny and dispersion.” He pleaded with Henry to use all his influence to send some relief. It was, George Washington explained, “a matter that so nearly affects the very existence of our contest.” Three birthdays later the Patriots still had not prevailed. Washington stayed his course.
In 1790, a different kind of flurried activity consumed the anniversary of Washington’s birth. His diary entry read: “Set seriously to removing my furniture to my New House.” The President, who’d taken up temporary residence upon moving to New York City, had at last found a large and impressive enough home to serve his family’s and the country’s needs: a space to house all the protégés he collected and to conduct foreign policy. Seven birthdays later, he and Martha attended the last of his presidential balls. John Adams would be sworn in as the second U.S. President less than two weeks after Washington’s sixty-fifth birthday, and George and Martha could hardly wait to get back to Mount Vernon.
For more than twenty years, George Washington graciously accepted the well-wishes of admirers seeking to honor him on the anniversary of his birth. His friends and countrymen wrote songs in tribute to him, hosted parties and balls, and organized parades, as the residents of one Virginia county explained in February 1797, “to celebrate the Anniversary of the birth of our beloved fellow Citizen George Washington.”
February 22, 1799, was surely one of the happiest birthdays of George Washington’s life. Mount Vernon fairly buzzed that day, and not just because of the usual anniversary festivities. Eleanor Parke Custis, the granddaughter George and Martha Washington informally adopted and raised as their own, was getting married that evening. The bride, who everyone called Nelly, and her fiancé, Lawrence Lewis, a nephew of the former president, purposely chose the day to honor the man they loved and admired. The extended, blended family gathered to celebrate the wedding. George Washington’s late step-son’s widow (the biological mother of the bride) came with her second husband and her brother. Families were complicated in the eighteenth century: homes were filled with step-parents, half-siblings, and grandparents and aunts raising their young relatives. Eighteenth-century families actually looked a lot like our families today: death did then what divorce does now. The Washingtons were no exception. Nelly and Lewis said their vows before their gathered hodge-podge of kin at sunset.
That happy birthday was also George Washington’s last. He fell suddenly ill in the last month of the last year of the eighteenth century, and died within a few days, on December 14. Americans publicly grieved their “father” on an unprecedented and, excepting the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, a still unmatched scale. Hundreds of eulogies, mock funerals, and commemorations ran all across the United States from mid-December through the anniversary of his birth the following February. In fact, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution encouraging towns and communities to plan public ceremonies on the 22nd. The nation, Congressmen agreed, should never forget the life and legacy of George Washington.
Although nineteenth-century Americans continued to commemorate George Washington’s birthday—initially solemnly and then more festively—it did not become an official federal holiday for nearly a century. From the 1880s to the 1960s, federal employees were on paid holiday every February 22. Then, in 1968 and in deference to creating three-day weekends (and retail sales opportunities), Congress moved George Washington’s Birthday from February 22 to the third Monday of that month. Some states started calling the holiday Presidents’ Day, and this usage has gradually become the default for most Americans. Ironically, George Washington’s Birthday—still the official, federal holiday—can never fall on the actual anniversary of his birth. The third Monday in February cannot be later than the 21st. We might see these moves—the naming and the timing—as ungrateful. But perhaps it is fitting, too: every year George Washington sacrifices yet another birthday for the changing needs of the American nation.
Lorri Glover is John Francis Bannon Endowed Chair, Department of History, Saint Louis University. She is author of four previous books on early American history, including The Shipwreck That Saved Jamestown. Her latest book is Founders as Fathers: The Private Lives and Politics of the American Revolutionaries.