It’s Presidents’ Day! On this day, we celebrate the birthdays of George Washington (February 22, 1731) and Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809). The day is sometimes understood as a celebration of the birthdays and lives of all U.S. presidents.
But if you Google federal holidays, Presidents’ Day isn’t listed. The holiday is technically known as Washington’s Birthday, and it occurs on the third Monday of February. It’s fitting that the holiday moves around because George Washington’s birthday has not always been February 22.
Before 1752, Washington’s birthday was February 11. Why the change?
In 1752, Great Britain adopted the new, improved calendar instituted by Pope Gregory the 13th late in the 16th century. This newly imposed Gregorian calendar, as it became known, fixed the length of the solar year at 365 days, with an additional day being added every four years (i.e., Leap Year).
The switch to the Gregorian calendar from the Julian calendar (named for Julius Caesar) was because the old calendar had become out of whack by ten whole days. By 1752, it was off by eleven full days. So those days were dropped that year. The day following February 1, 1752, for instance, was not February 2. It was February 11. So George Washington’s old birthday on February 11 jumped all the way to February 22. However, he wasn’t opposed to celebrating on both dates, as noted in his diary.
The first incarnation of this holiday was in 1796 to commemorate George Washington’s birthday. As the years passed, it was an occasion marked with speeches and receptions. By 1971, it had been added to the roster of federal holidays.
The country’s first President was no stranger to Lancaster. According to LNP, he visited our fair city five times: June 4, 1773; July 4, 1791; November 14, 1793; October 26, 1794; and September 20, 1796.
Below is a portrait of George Washington by Lancaster County artist, Scott Cantrell. Click here to see more of his work.
The first was on June 4, 1773. In his diary, Washington wrote:
4. Breakfasted at the Sign of the Bull 13 Miles from the Ship. Dind at Lancaster 19 Miles further & lodgd at Wrights Ferry 10 Miles from Lancaster.
Records indicate that Washington visited the Demuth Tobacco Shop to make a purchase while in town on June 4 and likely met proprietor, Johannes Demuth.
His second visit to Lancaster came in July of 1791. Now serving as president, Washington was touring southern and eastern states. He came to Lancaster via York on Sunday, July 3, to visit his old friend and military aide, General Edward Hand.
Hand with other Lancaster dignitaries met Washington at Wright’s Ferry (now Columbia) to escort the President to Lancaster. The President’s coach arrived at Lancaster’s outskirts (Abbeville) around 6 pm on July 3. As was Washington’s habit, he exited his coach and entered Lancaster on horseback.
The President was greeted with ringing church bells, cheering crowds, waving flags, and firing cannons.
Interesting Side Note. I recently read Ron Chernow’s biography on George Washington entitled Washington: A Life. Chernow made it very clear that Washington loathed these greetings. It made traveling anywhere a slow and tedious process as he had to endure such events every time he entered and left a town.
Washington spent the night at the White Swan Hotel, located at what is now known as Penn Square.
The following morning, Washington had the opportunity to walk the streets. He spent the rest of the day at an elaborate dinner in the courthouse in the square. Fifteen toasts were made. The final toast was to “The Illustrious President of the United States.”
After taking a tea with the General and Mrs. Hand that afternoon and spending a quiet evening with old friends, the President left Lancaster the next morning at 4 pm to go to Philadelphia.
Here’s Washington account of the two days from his July 3 and July 4, 1791 diary entries:
Sunday, July 3rd.
Received and answered an address from the inhabitants of Yorktown and there being no Episcopal minister present in the place I went to hear morning service performed in the Dutch Reformed Church which being in that language not a word of which I understood I was in no danger of becoming a proselyte to its religion by the eloquence of the preacher. After service accompanied by Colonel Hartley and a half a dozen other Gentlemen I set off for Lancaster. I dined at Wright s Ferry where I was met by General Hand and many of the principal characters of Lancaster and escorted to the town by them arriving at six o clock. The country from York to Lancaster is very fine, thickly settled and well cultivated. About the Ferry they are extremely rich. The River Susquehanna at this place is more than a mile wide and some pretty views on the banks of it.
Monday, July 4th, 1791.
This being the anniversary of American Independence and being kindly requested to do it I agreed to halt here this day and partake of the entertainment which was prepared for the celebration of it. In the forenoon I walked about the town. At half past two o clock I received and answered an address from the Corporation and received the compliments of the Clergy of different denominations, dined between three and four o clock drank tea with Mrs. Hand.
On November 14, 1793, Washington was in Lancaster on route to Germantown while returning from a trip to Quittapahilla Creek in modern-day Lebanon County to view the construction of a canal there.
Here’s what the letter book copy recorded:
GW left Germantown on 12 Nov. for Lebanon, Pa., to view the canal being constructed by the Schuylkill and Susquehanna Navigation Company near Quittapahilla Creek, and he returned via Lancaster, arriving back at Germantown on 16 November. GW was at Womelsdorf, Pa., on the evening of 13 Nov. and spent several hours at Reading, Pa., on 14 November.
On October 26, 1794, Washington was again in Lancaster after returning from an inspection of troops involved in the “Whiskey Rebellion.”
Interesting Side Note. A month earlier, on September 19, 1794, George Washington became the only sitting U.S. President to personally lead troops into battle. Washington met the 13,000 troops gathered at Carlisle, Pennsylvania taking them on a nearly month-long march west over the Allegheny Mountains to the town of Bedford to end the Whiskey Rebellion.
It is thought that Washington might have spent the night at the Grape Hotel at what is now 32 North Queen Street Lancaster. Click here to read more about the Grape. However, it is possible that he lodged with one of his friends who lived in the area.
We know this from a letter that Washington wrote to Alexander Hamilton dated October 26, 1794. Here’s an excerpt from their correspondence.
I rode yesterday afternoon [October 25, 1794] thro’ the rain from York Town to this place [Wright’s Ferry, now Columbia, PA], and got twice in the height of it hung, (and delayed by that means) on the rocks in the middle of the Susquehanna, but I did not feel half as much for my own situation as I did on acct of the Troops on the Mountains—and of the effect the rain might have on the Roads through the glades.
I do not intend further than Lancaster today. But on Tuesday, if no accident happens I expect to be landed in the City of Philadelphia.
Washington’s final visit to Lancaster occurred on September 20, 1796, when he spent the night here on his way from Philadelphia to Mount Vernon. The Lancaster Journal on September 23, 1796, wrote the following concerning Washington’s brief Lancaster visit:
The President of the United States arrived here on Tuesday afternoon last, September 20, and on Wednesday morning at 6 o’clock proceeded on his way to Mount Vernon.
Thoughts to Ponder
At the risk of getting too political, I would like to share two fascinating stories from the Chernow biography on Washington that I was unaware of.
The eight years Washington spend as commander in chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War away left him in near financial ruin. Washington was so poor at the start of his presidency that he had to borrow £100 to afford the trip to New York City for his own inauguration. Hard to imagine?
Another interesting fact was that Washington was childless. He and Martha never had any of their own children. Martha had two from a previous marriage that Washington raised as his own. His stepson died during the Revolutionary War, and he raised his stepson’s two youngest children as his own.
But the fact that Washington was childless allowed him to be the father of the nation. The country had just unshackled itself from a monarch, so when the idea of a President was brought forth, there were immediate concerns the states were potentially getting a new one.
The fact that Washington did not have a son put most of those concerns aside. Furthermore, the book says the lack of a daughter prevented potential marriage offers from French, England, or Spain, which would have tied the fledgling nation to a European monarchy and creating a ruling class.
- The Mystery in Lodge 43
- Washington Papers
- Which presidents have visited Lancaster County? A look at their local stops
- Washington at Lancaster
- Old Lancaster: Historic Pennsylvania Community
- From George Washington to Alexander Hamilton, 26 October 1794
- From George Washington to Mary Atlee, 14 November 1793
- Why George Washington Had Two Birthdays | Footnote to History
- Washington: A Life