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Celebrating Presidents: From the Obvious to the Obscure

A look at the history of Presidents' Day and some lesser known facts about some less celebrated presidents.

Quick, what's today? Presidents Day, the federal holiday that's probably known more for car dealership specials and being the driving force behind schools' winter break than for anything else, right?

But technically, in the eyes of the U.S. government, it's not.

The federal holiday introduced as Washington's Birthday in 1885 is still called Washington's Birthday.

To make matters more confusing, today isn't actually Washington's Birthday, and the holiday now never falls on his real birthday; he was born Feb. 22, 1732 (and even that's not quite true, since the calendar observed by the English colonies switched from the Julian to the Gregorian in 1752).

In 1971, the holiday recognizing his birth was shifted to the third Monday in February by the Uniform Monday Holiday Act (not making up that name). There was talk of a renaming at the same time as the shift, but that never happened.

And that's where the trouble began. 

The aim of the act was to streamline holidays for federal government workers, and turn as many of them as possible into three-day weekends. But the only people bound to observe federal holidays are federal employees. Most states follow along with federal holiday designations, but when it came to Washington's Birthday, many didn't.

Some states went for the shift to third-Monday observance but adopted the idea of a holiday to celebrate all presidents. Because there's no set rule for what to call it, it's variably called Presidents Day and Presidents' Day, and sometimes, incorrectly, President's Day, which makes grammarians twitch.

Some states also kept recognizing Lincoln's birthday on Feb. 12, too, though that was never a federal holiday. And some have weird hybrids, like Washington-Lincoln day.

So really, unless you're a federal employee, whether you have off or not and what you call the day comes down to where you live. In New Jersey, it's Presidents Day.

But don't try to drive that point home with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.

As the department's website pointedly says in a footnote to its calendar, "this holiday is designated as 'Washington’s Birthday' in section 6103(a) of title 5 of the United States Code, which is the law that specifies holidays for Federal employees. Though other institutions such as state and local governments and private businesses may use other names, it is our policy to always refer to holidays by the names designated in the law."

Bit snooty about it, no?

So instead of lauding the courage of Washington and Lincoln, the leadership of Truman and Eisenhower, the revolution of Reagan or the boom years of Clinton, Patch will take a moment to tread down the road less travelled. Here we present the five most obscure facts about the five most obscure American Presidents (and one "almost President")  of all time.

  • Millard Filmore, in office July 9, 1850 through March 4, 1853, was the last member of the Whig party to serve as President. Despite being a native of New York State, he opposed Abraham Lincoln’s decision to engage in the Civil War.
  • Benjamin Harrison, in office March 4, 1881 through March 4, 1887, defeated incumbent Democrat Grover Cleveland, and is best known for being the President who signed the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, which is the basis for all modern anti-trust legislation. He’s also the grandson of fellow poorly-known President William Henry Harrison.
  • Warren G. Harding’s time in office - March 4, 1921 through Aug. 2, 1923 – didn’t end well. He died in California while on his way back to Washington, D.C. from a trip to Alaska. Before becoming President, Harding was a newspaper publisher.
  • Martin Van Buren, in office March 4, 1837 through March 4, 1841, was the first President who was not of British descent. His lineage was Dutch. He was also one of the original organizers of the modern Democratic party. Van Buren will forever be known to modern Americans as the President who inspired a fictional street gang, “The Van Buren Boys” on the TV comedy Seinfeld. The group’s gang sign consisted of flashing the number eight with one’s fingers, symbolizing Van Buren’s position as the nation’s eighth President.
  • Finally, Thomas E. Dewey never became President, despite the historical newspaper headline gaffe which would have had Americans believe otherwise. The 47th governor of New York was known as a liberal Republican who mostly supported Democrat Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal social welfare programs. And yes, he did, indeed, lose his Presidential bid to President Harry S. Truman.

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