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Presidents' Day

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Washington's Birthday



Presidents' Day, officially known as Washington's Birthday, is observed on the third Monday of February.

In 1968, legislation (HR 15951) was enacted that affected several federal holidays. One of these was Washington's Birthday, the observation of which was shifted to the third Monday in February each year. This act was designed to simplify the yearly calendar of holidays.

A common misconception is that Presidents' Day is the unification of Washington's Birthday and Lincoln's Birthday, or that it is a celebration of all U.S. Presidents. Both of these assumptions are false.

Although some states do celebrate Presidents' Day as a state holiday, it has never been recognized at the federal level. On the national level, the third Monday of February is the official observance of Washington's Birthday.

C. L. Arbelbide explains the misconceptions and confusions surrounding this holiday in a two part article titled "By George, IT IS Washington's Birthday!" (Prologue - Winter 2004, vol. 36, no. 4). The article can be accessed on the Prologue website here.

(Prologue is a publication of the National Archives and Records Administration.)



Hail to the Chief

Performance by The U.S. Army Ceremonial Band

Origin of "Hail to the Chief"

In its original form, James Sanderson's "Hail to the Chief" was a setting of a portion of Canto 2, in Sir Walter Scott's "The Lady of the Lake."  Apparently Sanderson borrowed this setting from its use in one of the several dramatic versions of the poem which appeared shortly after Scott's epic was written.  In November 1810, Scott wrote to a friend that "The Lady of the Lake" was being made into a play by Martin and Reynolds in London and by a Mr. Siddons in Edinburgh.  Presumably the music was written sometime between 1810 and 1811.  In that time frame, Scott received a letter from a friend and army officer who ended his note with a copy of the music of the Boat Song, "Hail to the Chief."

The music and a version of the play soon appeared in this country.  The first performance of the play in New York City, for example, was given on May 8, 1812.  One of the earliest copies of the music found in the Military District of Washington's collections was probably printed during 1812.  Many other printers in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore also published versions of "Hail to the Chief," not to mention numerous parodies.  One of them, for example, is "Wreaths for the Chieftain," written by L.M. Sargent, Esq. and sung by Mr. Huntington, in the Stone Chapel, Boston, at the celebration of peace with Great Britain, and the birthday of Gen. Washington, Feb. 22, 1815.  Adapted to a favorite air of Sanderson, from "The Lady of the Lake" by F. Granger. Boston, G. Graupner (before 1820).

Judging by the song's frequency in the performances by songsters, it sprang almost immediately into wide, general popularity.  The song maintained its popularity well into the 1840's, both in its original form and in that of various political and patriotic parodies.

Because of its martial character and the appropriateness of its title, gradually there was a transition of "Hail to the Chief" from just a popular tune of the day to a march which has enjoyed "official" status.  When the tune was first used for a presidential inauguration is unknown.  Contemporary accounts of the inaugural ceremonies unfortunately do not mention any particular musical compositions which may have been performed.

No doubt, during the period of the song's greatest popularity, many band leaders thought it would be appropriate to greet the appearance of some political figures with the well-known strains.  Later, by a process much too gradual to call for special mention, it was reserved entirely for Presidential appearances.

*Sanderson, James, 1769-1841 March and chorus, in the dramatic romance of the "Lady of the Lake," composed by Mr. Sanderson. Philadelphia, Published by G.E. Blake (ca. 1812).

Source: The Military District of Washington






By George, IT IS Washington's Birthday! - Excellent article explaining how Washington's Birthday became popularly known as Presidents' Day. This article has two sections. Be sure to read both Part 1 and Part 2. (Prologue - Winter 2004, vol. 36, no. 4. © C. L. Arbelbide)


Washington's Birthday Holiday Honors "Father of our Country" (From the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of International Information Programs)


Presidents of the United States - pictures and brief biographies of all of the US presidents (The White House)


Portraits of the Presidents and First Ladies (Library of Congress)


Presidents of the United States - Background information, election results, cabinet members, notable events, and some points of interest on each of the presidents. Links to biographies, historical documents, audio and video files, and other presidential sites are also included. (The Internet Public Library)


US Code Title 5, Chapter 61, Section 6103(a) - This federal law defines the third Monday of February as Washington's Birthday. (The Legal Information Institute)


President Nixon's 1971 Executive Order 11582 - Observance of holidays by Government agencies. (National Archives and Records Administration)




Hail to the Chief (The U.S. Army Ceremonial Band - 0:59/1.0MB)


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