George Washington's Birthday

Newspaper article from 1752
Poor Richard's Almanac- September 1752

George Washington Bicentennial Commission

George Washington was born at Popes Creek Plantation in February 1732, the oldest child of Augustine and Mary Ball Washington. He had two half-brothers and a half-sister as well as three full brothers and two full sisters. The family's wealth was sustained by growing tobacco and holding an interest in an iron production business.

George's mother, Mary, had been orphaned as a child, and it is generally believed that she named her first son after her guardian, a local lawyer and statesman named George Eskridge.

George Washington spent the first three years of his life at Popes Creek, and after the death of his father, would return to visit his older half brother, Augustine, Junior. It was here at Popes Creek that George performed his first survey at age 14.

February 11, 1731 or February 22, 1732?

What day is George Washington's Birthday?

If you could go back in time and ask a young George Washington on what day he was born, he would reply February 11, 1731. Almost 300 years later, we celebrate his birthday as February 22, 1732. Why the change in dates?

When George Washington was born, Great Britain and its colonies, used the Julian calendar which had different dates than the wider used Gregorian calendar. In 1751, Great Britain chose to switch to the Gregorian calendar, causing a fair amount of confusion. For the British to be synchronized with the rest of Europe, there were two major changes required:

  • The Julian calendar started each year on March 25, which was the Feast of the Incarnation of Christ. Under the Gregorian Calendar, New Year's Day would now be celebrated on January 1st.
  • The other change required dropping eleven days from the middle of September in 1752.

Look closely at the above image from Poor Richard's Almanac. It is the page for September 1752. You will see it reads that “SEPTEMBER hath XIX Days” (or September has 19 days.) A further look shows that the calendar skips from September 2nd to September 14th. People went to sleep on the night of September 2, 1752, and awoke on September 14, 1752, the dates of September 3-13 being removed. This one time change to the calendar caused most birthdates to shift eleven days.

In the case of Washington’s birthday, it shifted from February 11th (Old Style) to February 22nd (New Style).

"Presidents' Day" or Washington's Birthday?

Washington's service to his country and high esteem among his countrymen prompted many to honor and celebrate his birthday while he was still alive. Some still chose to celebrate on the 11th, while others chose to celebrate on the 22nd.

February 22 was observed as a federal public holiday until 1971, when President Richard Nixon declared a single holiday to be called Presidents' Day that would be observed on the third Monday in February in order to honor all past presidents.

Due to the legal mechanism that President Nixon used, the name Presidents' Day never became the permanent name of the holiday and the day is still properly called George Washington's Birthday on all official Federal Government calendars and writings.

Ironically, the 22nd can never occur on the third Monday in February.

Washington's Birthday Becomes the First American Holiday

In 1778, in the midst of the War for Independence, the first public celebration of Washington's Birthday took place at Valley Forge. A band of fifers and drummers serenaded General Washington at his quarters.

In 1781 the French at Newport, Rhode Island held a parade in Washington's honor. The French celebrated it on Monday, February 23rd to avoid holding the event on a Sunday. Washington wrote to Count Rochambeau that, "The flattering distinction paid to the anniversary of my birthday is an honor for which I dare not attempt to express my gratitude. I confide in your sensibilities to interpret my feelings for this, and for the obliging manner in which you are pleased to announce it."

George Washington's Birthnight Ball

The custom of the Birthnight Ball originated in Britain to commemorate and celebrate the birthday of the king. Following the Declaration of Independence, Americans continued this tradition. Absent a monarch, Americans turned to the next closest figure, George Washington.

The first recorded Washington Birthnight Ball was held in Williamsburg in 1779.

Newspapers reported that Alexandria was the site of a ball in honor of Washington's birthday on February 11, 1780.

The February 7, 1787 issue of the Times and Alexandria Advertiser invited all "Ladies of Alexandria and its vicinity" to Gadsby's Tavern and informed gentlemen as to where they could purchase tickets for Washington's Birthnight Ball to be held in three days.

The last Birthnight Ball was held in February 1799, just ten months before Washington's death. It is unknown how many Birthnight Balls he attended.

Washington's Birthday Lives On

  • 1832 - For the 100th anniversary of Washington's birth, the famed orator Daniel Webster declared that, "A hundred years hence, other disciples of Washington will celebrate his birth, with no less of sincere admiration than we now commemorate it."
  • 1857 - February 22 was designated a state holiday in Massachusetts.
  • 1880 - George Washington's Birthday was first observed as a Federal holiday.
  • 1932 - The George Washington Bicentennial Commission was formed to coordinate almost five million events in 81 countries. One event was the deeding of Washington's Birthplace to the National Park Service.

George Washington Birthplace National Monument

Last updated: June 24, 2021