A quick history of Presidents Day: It began in 1885 to honor America’s first president, George Washington. However, in 1971, in accordance with the Uniform Monday Act, Presidents Day became a three-day weekend to honor all presidents, period. We celebrate the national holiday on the third Monday of each February. Some states continue to celebrate the individual birthdays of Lincoln (February 12) and Washington (February 22) separately.
Of course, that means today is Presidents Day and raises this question: What did some presidents do on February 15 during their administrations?
In 1879 – predating Presidents Day in any form – President Rutherford B. Hayes signed a bill into law that allowed women attorneys to argue cases before the United States Supreme Court – some 41 years before the ratification of the 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote. Thus, the door was open for Belva A. Lockwood to be the first woman to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 1898, the battleship USS Maine exploded and sank in Cuba’s Havana Harbor, killing 260 sailors sent there by President McKinley to protect American interests as tensions between the independence-seeking Cubans and Spain rose. Hopes of America remaining neutral ended as media moguls, including William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, led the charge of “Remember the Maine!” and blamed Spain for its destruction in their respective publications. Two months later, the Spanish-American War began with fighting in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. The military brought roughly 230 of the Maine’s victims back to the U.S. and buried them at Arlington National Cemetery. The ship’s mast towers over their graves, where the Maine’s anchor has been on display since February 15, 1915, in a memorial dedicated 17 years to the day of the explosion.
In 1933, an out of work brick mason named Guiseppe Zangara approached then President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt in Miami, yelled, “Too many people are starving!” and fired six shots at Roosevelt. “Roosevelt had just delivered a speech in Miami’s Bayfront Park from the back seat of his open touring car when Zangara opened fire,” per the History Channel. “Five people were hit. The president escaped injury but the mayor of Chicago, Anton Cermak, who was in attendance, received a mortal stomach wound in the attack.” Cermak died 19 days later and 2 days after FDR’s inauguration. Zangara died in the electric chair 32 days later. Florida law prohibited condemned inmates from sharing a cell before the execution, so the prison created a separate cell for Zangara. Thus, the term “death row” came into use.
Beyond that, presidential events on February 15 involved policy, politics, and praise. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush met with South American leaders in an anti-drug summit; and President Clinton did the same with Mexican President Zedillo in 1999.
In 2011, President George H.W. Bush received the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the nation’s highest civilian honor – from President Obama.
In 2013, President Obama honored six adults, killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December 2012, by bestowing the Presidential Citizens Medal upon them.
Finally, President Obama in 2014 restored benefits previously reduced for young military retirees.
Which brings us back to Presidents Day this year, coinciding with National Gumdrop Day (which Jelly Belly-loving President Ronald Reagan would have appreciated), and Singles Awareness Day (which President Buchanan, the only lifelong bachelor to hold the office, might have enjoyed).
Happy Presidents Day!