I’ve written before about the fact that President’s Day is a myth, the official name of the holiday is Washington’s Birthday Observance. Click the link to read about the history of the holiday, the few states that do observe a holiday called President’s Day (though some observe it in completely different months), and so on. Today, I want to talk a little bit about why there has never been a Federal holiday honoring Lincoln’s birthday, and how that contributes to people thinking that today’s holiday is about anyone other than Washington…
Originally, Washington’s Birthday was made a holiday in the District of Columbia by an Act of Congress in 1879 (more than 100 years after American Independence and 14 years after the end of the Civil War). A few years later, Congress expanded the holiday to be observed in federal offices everywhere, not just in the capital.
Before this happened, in 1874, just nine years after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, Julius Francis, of Buffalo, New York, began campaigning to make Lincoln’s birthday a holiday. He had difficulty finding Congressional sponsors. It was during a committee hearing responding to one of his petitions that the idea of a holiday for Washington was drafted as the bill that was passed in 1879.
Several reasons were given for not honoring Lincoln’s birthday: some felt it was too soon after his death; others wondered why honor Lincoln, and not any other president (which led to the Washington’s Birthday observance); and others, of course, were angry at the president for issuing the Emancipation Proclamation and ending slavery.
Even without a law proclaiming Lincoln’s Birthday a holiday, lots of places observed it. Hogdenville, Kentucky, where Lincoln was born, has long held annual ceremonies honoring Lincoln’s birthday. Likewise in Springfield, Illinois, where Lincoln was buried. And in black communities all over the nation, there was a long-standing tradition of having some sort of public celebration on February 12 for Abraham Lincoln, and on February 14 for the birthday of Frederick Douglass (former slave and abolitionist). This solidified the polarization: because African-American citizens thought Lincoln was a great president, a specific fraction of white men became even more convinced that they had to oppose any attempt to honor his memory officially.
As the years went by, many Northern state legislatures passed bills creating a state holiday on Lincoln’s Birthday. And from time to time various people would try to get Congress to declare it a national holiday. The old arguments would be raised against it, although people usually used code-phrases or dog whistles rather than admit to the racist component of their argument. They no longer say they were angry that Lincoln freed the slaves, instead they say that Lincoln was “controversial.” Or his treatment of those living in the Confederate territories as the Union Army established control was “dictatorial.”
The sad thing is that many of the people making those arguments honestly don’t realize that they are simply repeating racist propaganda. Having a lot of relatives from the south, I’ve run into this phenomenon many times. “Lincoln was a dictator!” “Oh? And what, exactly, did he do?” And then they list off things which to the south after Lincoln died—actions of the carpetbaggers, acts of Congress from the retaliatory branch of the Republican party, and so on. None of them can name anything that Lincoln actually ordered or did, except to free all the slaves in occupied territories. They’re usually quick to say that they aren’t racist and of course, they don’t think slavery should be happening now, but he shouldn’t have forced it on people. (It was okay to forcibly enslave people, but not okay to compel slave-owners to stop oppressing slaves, apparently.)
Technically, the Emancipation Proclamation did not, by itself, end slavery. It was an Executive Order, which normally would have only applied to actions of federal officials and departments. Because of the War Powers granted to the President, it was legally binding on those territories that had rebelled against the government, at least until the War Powers were rescinded. But that’s an important thing to remember: Congress activated those Constitutional War Powers when it declared the war.
Not only that. Lincoln issued a pre-proclamation, notifying Congress and the Confederate states that he would issue the proclamation in three months time, and specifying that any state that surrendered before the proclamation was signed would not be covered by it.
So it wasn’t Lincoln being a tyrant. States that peacefully rejoined the Union would have been exempt from the Proclamation. The four slave states that had not joined the rebellion were also exempt from the order, and slavery remained legal there. Congress could have countermanded the parts of the order that extended beyond departments of the Executive Branch if they choose to. Instead, Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution by the required two-thirds majority, and once it was ratified by the requisite number of states, then slavery was finally ended in the U.S.
The last serious attempt to get federal recognition of Lincoln’s Birthday as a holiday was in the 1950s, when bills to establish Lincoln’s Birthday on February 12 and a President’s Day to honor all Presidents on March 4 (the original Inauguration Day) got hung up in a Senate Committee ostensibly because having two federal holidays in February and then a third in March would just be too many.
When the Uniform Monday Holiday Act was being debated, it had originally called for the third Monday in February to be observed as President’s Day “in honor of Washington, Lincoln, and all others who have served as President.” And even that was too much for some people, so it was amended to be “Washington’s Birthday Observance.”
Lincoln was excluded again.
Several states do recognize a President’s Day (or as some spell it Presidents’ and others Presidents) on this day, to honor all of them, including Lincoln. A few officially call this day Washington and Lincoln Day. West Virginia was one of the states that celebrated Lincoln’s birthday before the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, but it eventually passed a law abolishing the holiday (sponsored by the Segregationist branch of the Democratic Party at the time). The same law recognized the day after Thanksgiving as a holiday during which state offices would remain closed. Republicans barely succeeded in amending the bill to name that day after Thanksgiving as “Lincoln’s Day.”
Ironic references to society’s current observance of the day after Thanksgiving are left as an exercise for the reader.