Today, we celebrate George Washington’s birthday. He was born near Pope’s Creek, Virginia, on February 22, 1732. Washington was the oldest son of Augustine Washington and Mary Ball Washington.
Yet, according to his diary, he often celebrated on February 11. For example, in 1794, Washington wrote that a public dinner was held for his birthday at Nathan Griffith’s Tavern, near Baltimore:
“…on the celebration of the President’s birth-day.” Of the fifteen toasts given on this occasion, one for every state at that time, the first was made to “The President of the United States.”February 11, 1794
Then in 1799, Washington noted how he went to Alexandria to celebrate his birthday again on February 11.
“Went up to Alexandria to the celebration of my birth day. Many Manoeuvres were performed by the Uniform Corps and an elegant Ball & Supper at Night.”February 11, 1799
If we carefully examine the historical record, we discover that Washington was born on February 11, 1731. So why the change to February 22, 1732?
The switch has to do with adopting the Gregorian calendar from the old Julian calendar (named for Julius Caesar). During the Middle Ages, it became apparent that the Julian leap year formula had overcompensated for the actual length of a solar year, having added an extra day every 128 years.
However, no adjustments were made to compensate. By 1582, seasonal equinoxes fell ten days “too early,” and some church holidays, such as Easter, did not always fall in the proper seasons. In that year, Pope Gregory XIII authorized, and most Roman Catholic countries adopted the “Gregorian” or “New Style” Calendar.”
As part of the change, ten days were dropped from October, and the formula for determining leap years was revised so that only years divisible by 400 (e.g., 1600, 2000) at the end of a century would be leap years. January 1 was established as the first day of the new year. Protestant countries, including England and its colonies, not recognizing the authority of the Pope, continued to use the Julian Calendar.
Between 1582 and 1752, not only were two calendars in use in Europe (and in European colonies), but two different starts of the year were in use in England. Although the “Legal” year began on March 25, the use of the Gregorian calendar by other European countries led to January 1 becoming commonly celebrated as “New Year’s Day” and given as the first day of the year in almanacs.
To avoid misinterpretation, both the “Old Style” and “New Style” year was often used in English and colonial records for dates falling between the new New Year (January 1) and old New Year (March 25), a system known as “double dating.” Such dates are usually identified by a slash mark [/] breaking the “Old Style” and “New Style” year, for example, March 19, 1631/2. Occasionally, writers would express the double date with a hyphen, for example, March 19, 1631-32. Double dating was more common in civil than church and ecclesiastical records.
Under the 1750 act of Parliament, England and its colonies changed calendars in 1752. England’s calendar change included three major components. The Julian Calendar was replaced by the Gregorian Calendar, changing the formula for calculating leap years. The beginning of the legal new year was moved from March 25 to January 1. Finally, 11 days were dropped from September 1752.
The changeover involved a series of steps:
- December 31, 1750 was followed by January 1, 1750.
- March 24, 1750 was followed by March 25, 1751. (March 25 was the first day of the “Old Style” year.)
- December 31, 1751 was followed by January 1, 1752. (The switch from March 25 to January 1 as the first day of the year.)
- September 2, 1752 was followed by September 14, 1752. (A drop of 11 days to conform to the Gregorian calendar.)
As a result, Washington’s old birthday on February 11, 1731, jumped to February 22, 1732. However, as noted in the above diary entries, he wasn’t opposed to celebrating on both dates.
You might be interested to learn that Washington visited Lancaster, PA, five times during his life. Click here to read about all five visits.
- Celebrating George Washington’s Birthday
- The 1752 Calendar Change
- Washington Papers
- Why George Washington Had Two Birthdays | Footnote to History
- Washington: A Life