Happy Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday! Now get back to work.
No, it’s not a holiday. At least it’s not a holiday for the vast majority of Americans. A few states celebrate Feb. 12 as a special day of recognition (we’re looking at you, Illinois). But the rest trudge on despite the fact that Friday is the birthday of maybe the greatest president ever.
Lincoln’s Birthday is not now and never has been a federal holiday. Nor has it been rolled into a national Presidents’ Day celebration later in the month. Why is that?
Blame sectionalism and the impact of the Civil War.
Remember that for decades following the Civil War, the North and South remained divided about how and when to remember the conflict and the fallen. At first, the regions observed decoration days held on different dates, when flowers were placed on graves and memorials. It took the national trauma of World War I to meld these into a unitary Memorial Day.
In that context, it’s not surprising that after Lincoln’s assassination, there wasn’t a national movement to recognize his birthday. In the North, some tried: Julius Francis, a shopkeeper from Buffalo, N.Y., in the late 19th century made it his life’s work to promote public remembrance of the 16th president.
A few states grasped that flag. By 1890 ten, including Francis’s native New York, had made Lincoln’s Birthday a state holiday. But Congress did not. Memories of the Civil War were still strong.
Fast-forward to 1971. Congress was considering a wholesale shuffle of US holidays to provide more three-day weekends. (It is a myth this was due to lobbying from mattress stores eager to promote patriotic Blowout Sales.)
Washington’s Birthday got thrown into the mix. It had been a federal holiday since 1886. Why not combine it with Lincoln’s Birthday and name it “Presidents’ Day”? That would make it vague enough to move around without regard to any chief executive’s actual birth date. And Lincoln would finally get his due.
Illinois and some other Northern states thought this was a great idea. Virginia did not. The Old Dominion wanted to protect Washington’s singularity. Virginian lawmakers blocked the move – meaning the three-day federal holiday celebrated in February is officially George Washington’s Birthday.
There is no US Presidents’ Day. We don’t care what the guy on red-white-and-blue stilts is saying on QVC. Some states call it that, but they can’t even agree on the apostrophe – is it President’s, or Presidents’, or Presidents? Nobody knows.
Thus Lincoln’s Birthday remains un-federal. Some states continue to recognize it, but others have rolled back their Feb. 12 holiday, given the proximity to Washington’s Birthday and Martin Luther King Day.
This doesn’t mean we can’t hold the Great Emancipator in our hearts on the day he came into this life, 207 years ago. But keep looking at that spreadsheet while you’re doing it.