Why we celebrate Presidents' Day.

New York Life | February 10, 2021

Updated February 6, 2024

President's Day monument

As we look towards a more united future, remembering the great figures from our past and what they stood for has perhaps never been more important.

This Monday, February 19, 2024, marks what is now widely known as Presidents' Day. Originally established as a national holiday in 1885 in recognition of President George Washington,1 it’s now popularly viewed as a day to celebrate all US presidents, both past and present.

One holiday, many names

Although a federal holiday, the third Monday in February has more than a dozen different official titles across the U.S., including:

  • A number of variations refer to Washington (whose actual birthday was February 22, 1732) by name, and several refer to Abraham Lincoln (born February 12, 1809).
  • More unusually, Alabama proudly celebrates another great president on what it officially calls ‘George Washington/Thomas Jefferson Birthday’2 (Jefferson’s birthday is actually in April). 
  • In Arkansas, Washington shares the honors with civil rights leader Daisy Gatson Bates.3

This wide range of monikers seems fitting in a country that is built on and thrives on diversity. What they all have in common is a belief that as Americans we should understand our history and how it has contributed to the country we live in today.

As an organization, New York Life is committed to the principles of freedom and democracy Washington and Lincoln sought to embed at the heart of our nation.

Washington: Founding father of democracy

The roots of Presidents' Day go back over two centuries. Following the death of George Washington in 1799, his birthday became a perennial day of remembrance and a focus of national pride. However, it wasn’t until 1885 (when New York Life was already well-established as a business) that Washington’s birthday became one of only five nationally recognized federal holidays (the others being Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, the Fourth of July, and Thanksgiving). Until 1983, when Martin Luther King Jr. Day was signed into law, Presidents' Day was the only federal holiday to celebrate the life of an individual American.

Why do we continue to celebrate the life of a man who died more than 200 years ago? Perhaps because Washington, though a man of his time, embodies many of the values on which our nation was founded and which continue to resonate today. As historian Stephen E. Ambrose points out, “At the center of events for 24 years, he never lied, fudged, or cheated.”4

Washington was relentlessly optimistic and led by example, sharing the privations of his soldiers at war, resisting efforts to make him a king, and voluntarily yielding power by establishing the precedent that no man should serve more than two terms as president.

Of course, it would be wrong not to acknowledge that although Washington spoke frequently of his desire to end the practice of slavery, he was himself a slaveholder.

Lincoln: An essentially modern patriot

If Washington was a great man, Lincoln is the president who most would cite as the greatest ever. In 1982, the Chicago Tribune asked 49 historians and political scientists to rate every president up to and including Jimmy Carter in five categories: leadership qualities, accomplishments/crisis management, political skills, appointments, and character/integrity. Not only did Lincoln come out on top overall, of the next seven presidents below him on the list, none exceeded him in any category.5

Lincoln might be worthy of the number-one spot for his role in saving the Union alone; that he left as his legacy a United States that was not only whole but in a crucial way more democratic secures his status for most as the American president to remember.

By issuing the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, Lincoln set in motion the process that would see the abolition of slavery passed into law two years later by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.

Of course, we should never forget that both Washington and Lincoln were products of their time and their views would not stand up to contemporary standards of democracy and morality (for example, while Lincoln believed that slavery was morally wrong, he was not a supporter of universal suffrage for Black people6). However, the principles they followed and the laws they helped put in place paved the way for the democracy we live in today.

New York Life's commitment to democratic principles

As an organization, New York Life is committed to the principles of freedom and democracy that Washington and Lincoln sought to embed at the heart of our nation. From our foundation as a mutual company we’ve made our own efforts to help generations of Americans enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

In 1891, when women were still prohibited from entering a legal contract, we hired our first female agents. In 1896, we became the first company to offer life insurance to people with disabilities. In 1964, we were the first insurance company to join the federal equal employment opportunity program. And in 1992, we created our Cultural Markets Division to help serve America’s increasingly diverse communities more effectively. Perhaps that commitment to the fundamental tenets of our democracy is why at least nine U.S. presidents chose to be New York Life policy owners.


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Media contact

Kevin Maher
New York Life Insurance Company
(212) 576-7937