Presidents' Day

Following 230 years of third Mondays in February.

     07 Feb 1797 — Gadsby’s Tavern has its inaugural celebration of Washington’s Birthday, and the proprietors appear to know how to attract a crowd: Ladies’ Night. Ladies from BOTH sides of the Potomac were admitted for free, and the fellows were charged admission.
    The abbreviation “N.B.” means “Nota Bene,” which is Latin for “Note Well,” as in “Yall best N.B. that we’re having this party on the wrong date because we’re not going to risk being caught tearing roofs off on the Sabbath.”
     Washington was busy being president in Flipadelphia, and did not attend this particular event. 
     In the space for Feb 12th, 1799, Washington writes in his diary: “Went up to Alexandria to the celebration of my birth day. Many Manœuvres were performed by the Uniform Corps and an elegant Ball & Supper at Night.”
     This happened at Gadsby’s Tavern, where they’d been having annual celebrations for a few years. They continued this tradition until the Civil War broke out, and resumed in 1976 after catching a case of Bicentennial Fever. 
     It was Washington’s last birthday. 
1856: Massachusetts gets down with GDub’s birthday on a legislative level and writes Franklin Pierce a letter about it, is the first state to do so

22 Feb 1779: The first community celebration of Washington’s Birthday  without Washington present that I’ve found, in Feb 26’s Virginia Gazette. Also, this paper is positively peppered with runaway slave notices. 


Presidents’ Day 1848: February 21st, a Monday.

In 1846, John Quincy Adams suffered a stroke walking through the streets of Boston with a friend. He recovered shortly but remained a bit wobbly for the rest of his life.

Presidents’ Day 1848: February 21st, a Monday.

       WASHINGTON, DC: By this point, John Quincy Adams, after serving generally admirably as Secretary to the Minister to Russia; Minister to the Netherlands; Minister to Prussia; Massachusetts State Senator; US Senator; US Minister to Russia; US Minister to Great Britain; Secretary of State; President of the United States; and US Representative for Massachusetts, has been tinkering about not even remotely as admirably in the field of amateur poetry for fifty-odd years. He told his diary a secret in 1816, having passed just over half of the 67 years his career in public service spanned, stating his preference for poetry over politics: “Could I have chosen my own genius and condition, I should have made myself a great poet.”

       Evenings at the Adams’ home in London during John Quincy’s tenure as Minister to Great Britain often involved dinner with the family of Dr. William Nicholas, headmaster of the boarding school the Adams children attended. This was followed by singalongs and poetry readings, where John Quincy’s pre-presidential poetry pieces were praised with pomp. This inspired him to start really bearing down on this whole poetry thing, and to share as much of it as he could with whoever had functioning ears and a few minutes to spare. He was very excited about poetry.

       Too bad, John Quincy Adams! The aptitudes his upbringing drilled into him laid almost entirely in the arenas of statesmanship and politics. None of his poems were particularly well-received by the critics – one typical review in the December 1832 issue of The New-England Magazine said of Adams’ entrance into epic poetry, Dermot Mac Morrogh, or the Conquest of Ireland ; an Historical Tale of the Twelfth Century In Four Cantos:

       “This work consists of three parts, each very remarkable in its way. These parts are, first, the Title Page; second, the Dedication and Preface; and, third, Four Cantos of Rhyme. The most noticeable part of the title-page is the announcement of the author’s name. Indeed, it is by that short sentence of four words – ‘By John Quincy Adams,” – to which Dermot Mac Morrogh will be solely indebted for all the attention it will receive. Were it not for this magic sentence, we doubt if many readers would get further than the middle of the first Canto; and we are quite certain that none would ever reach the end of the second.”

       Despite having his poetry persistently pilloried in the press, John Quincy persevered, never permitting the haters to quell his poet’s spirit. He wrote incessantly, noting in his diary of doing so while sitting for portraits, pretending to pay attention to sermons he considered droll, and during long bouts of insomnia. He wrote of his fondness for the writing time he gained from the many hours of travel made necessary by the levels of position he held compared to the slow travel technology of his era. While he resigned himself to the belief that he was “spell bound in the circle of mediocrity,” he happily dashed off mediocre poems in tribute to his friends, love poems to his wife, and since he was there and everything, a translation of the German epic Oberon. Nerd.

       On Presidents’ Day 1848, John Quincy Adams spends the afternoon replying to letters in his office, and responds to an autograph request with a few stanzas he’d written as a note to Carlo Franzoni’s The Car of History, a marble sculpture overlooking the Floor of the House of Representatives. This sculpture depicts Clio, the Greek Muse of History, riding in the chariot of Time and recording the events unfolding before her. Adams’ poem is an invitation for Clio to come alive and join everyone on the Floor in debate, then to collect everyone’s autographs. The portion included in the aforementioned letter only mentions autograph collecting:


Perched on her rock-wheeled and winged car over the front door of the Hall of the House of Representatives of the United States.

Muse; quit thy car! come down upon the floor,

And with thee bring that volume in thy hand,

Rap thy marble knuckles at the door,

And take at a reporter’s desk thy stand,

Send round thy album, and collect a store,

Of autographs from rulers of the land;

Invite each Solon to inscribe his name,

A self-recorded candidate for fame.


       As far as I’ve researched this, no documents suggest that this poem was written while the House was in session and Adams was bored enough to write a poem to the statue in the room. After excerpting, he then stuffs the letter in a drawer and makes his final walk from his office to the House Floor, a place he knew well. A few years in, he’d figured out a quirk in the architecture of the dome which enabled him to eavesdrop on conversations from across the room. Here, he’d saved the Smithsonian Institution from existing only on paper and spoke out against the exploitation of Industrial Revolution factory workers. The Hall was where he’d been one of the nation’s loudest voices for abolition, speaking out in defiance of a ban on slavery debates forced on Northern states by the South – he did so frequently enough for the House to consider censuring him. Adams conducted a nine-year battle from his desk here, defending his stance against the Gag Rule at such length and ferocity that he earned the nickname of “Old Man Eloquent.”

       Minutes after shouting what was by all accounts a rather loud “No!” against a proposition to decorate certain generals who were serving in what he saw as a pro-slavery Mexican War, Adams began to rise from his seat to defend his vote, got angry enough to have a massive stroke, which he then did, and crumpled into the arms of his deskmate. Laid out on a sofa, he was carried out of the Hall to the Speaker of the House’s private chamber. By the time he was in the room, he was fully paralyzed on his right side, and Louisa was immediately sent for. Realizing his condition, Adams said “This is the end of Earth,” and depending on whose account you take, added “…but I am content,” or “…but I am composed.” Whichever you prefer, they were his last words. Louisa got there in time to briefly see her husband in a delirium and unable to recognize her before he went into a coma. For two days in the Speaker’s room, the House Doctor attended him alongside the four Congressmen who were also doctors, to no avail. With his wife and son by his side, the absurdly brilliant John Quincy Adams died as he lived, with an amount of blood flowing to his brain that would kill just about anybody.

       Some time later, the Speaker’s room became The Lindy Claiborne Boggs Congressional Women’s Reading Room, where a bust of Adams is displayed. The Hall of Representatives was moved to a larger chamber as more states and a rising population demanded more members, and the Old Hall where Adams struck out on Presidents’ Day became the National Statuary Hall. Clio is still writing.

Presidents’ Day 1752: February 17th, a Monday.

1752 - February 17:

PORT CONWAY, VA: James Madison is very nearly an entire year old! When he’s done babying around, he’ll study pretty much everything and get elected president. Currently, he can see the Blue Ridge Mountains from his house, and his dad is the richest landowner in all Orange County. It’s good times in Babytown.

SHADWELL, VA: At 9, Thomas Jefferson has either just barely enrolled, or is about to enroll, in a school run by one of the major role models of his life, Scottish minister William Douglas. At some point in his life, he writes that the education his father bequeathed him was greater than any material inheritance, which is lucky, because that’s all he got. 

CAMBRIDGE, MA: John Adams, 19, is attending Harvard. It’s safe to assume he’s hanging out, getting his learn on, and being annoyingly brilliant.

YORKTOWN, PA: George Washington has recently returned from his Barbados, the only time he ever set foot in a foreign land. He accompanied his brother Lawrence, who was advised that the Barbados air would help his tuberculosis. On the trip, George contracted a severe case of smallpox, scarring his face. Shortly after his return, Washington develops tuberculosis, no doubt a gift from his brother. Speaking of, Lawrence will die next July, and he’ll leave George a place called Mount Vernon. 

Presidents’ Day 1914: Feb 16, a Monday.

1914 – February 16 :

YORBA LINDA, CA: Just over two months ago, Richard Nixon was born in the house his father built on the family’s lemon ranch. This property will become the Richard Nixon Library & Museum, but all anybody knows about it now is that it’s a mediocre lemon ranch.

GRAND RAPIDS, MI: Gerald Ford is six months old, his parents’ divorce is 8 weeks.

TAMPICO, IL: Ronald Reagan is 3 years old. Later on this year, he’ll carry his first US flag in Tampico’s Fourh of July parade.

JOHNSON CITY, TX: LBJ is six, living in a town named after his ancestors, enjoying first grade.

WEST POINT, NY: Eisenhower’s two new favorite activities are accumulating demerits, and bridge. His military record will improve, and bridge will become a favorite pastime for the rest of his life. There’s a ban on cigarettes, but cadets are allowed to smoke cigars or pipes in their rooms: Ike naturally takes up cigarettes. Staying close to West Point Football after his knee went bum in ’12, he’s currently head varsity cheerleader, and a coach for varsity football.

GRANDVIEW, MO: Harry Truman has a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. He arrives late to the county courthouse, and soon after, learns that his very favorite dear Aunt Ida has died. The lawsuit is postponed, and Harry immediately boards a train for the funeral. In transit, he writes a letter to his future wife, complaining about God having meddled in his plans: they were supposed to go out that evening. As the train ride was two days long, we can be relatively certain that he had a sandwich before it was over with. 50 years later, he writes in his memoirs that everyone liked Aunt Ida.

SOMEWHERE: FDR is currently serving as Assistant Secretary of the Navy and beginning to run for Senate.

BAY AREA, CA: Herbert Hoover has rented a house near Stanford University, as he’s been called to California to yet again save everyone from their financial woes. On days that he’s not saving Stanford from collapse, he’s saving California from the bankruptcies of San Francisco’s Sloss and Lilienthal families, whose collapse would have crippled the state’s economy.

BOSTON, MA: Calvin Coolidge has been president of the Massachusetts State Senate for five weeks.

SOMEWHERE: Warren Harding does things. He was a prominent dude at the time, and elected to the Senate in 1914, but there’s a lack of Harding action in the papers around the 16th. Exact information will eventually present itself.

THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE, BRAZIL: Theodore Roosevelt, 55 years old, is chopping his way through the wilderness, head towards the mouth of The River of Doubt, so named on account of how nobody had yet managed to survey the thing without dying or turning back. When TR finishes, he’ll have been nearly killed by infection, several of his party will have been lost to snakebite or disease, and The River of Doubt will eventually be renamed to Roosevelt River. On Feb 16th, he’s on break. Taking in a stunning view of the valley in Campos Novos, he relishes the presence of a few mud huts, fresh milk, and a few goats and chickens.

YALE: William Howard Taft has embarked on a successful post-presidency. He’s taken on the post of Chancellor Kent Professor of Law and Legal History for Yale, and was recently elected a fellow of The American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He’s been performing a series of lectures around this time, which will become his book The United States and Peace, but I don’t have dates pegged yet.

WHITE HOUSE: President Woodrow Wilson, 57 years old, is back to work after being laid out for a week with a cold. He receives few callers, hold a press conference, reads some letters, writes some letters. This is a normal routine for a recovering Wilson: when he got sick, he got extremely sick, which his doctors routinely lied to the press about. By all accounts, he still has a cough, he’s still a little hoarse, and his wife will be dead in just under six months. 

By the time Congress decided to take Feb 22nd off in honor of Washington’s 1832 centennial, finally throwing the guy some government recognition, the American people had been making a deal out of his birthday for years.