The History of Presidents' Day and Emancipation

Presidents’ Day is a federal holiday in the United States of America, observed on the third Monday in February. The official name “Presidents’ Day” came through the Uniform Monday Holiday Bill passed by Congress in 1968. The idea behind this Bill was to allow for certain holidays to be combined in such a way that would allow workers periodic three-day weekends throughout the calendar year. As Presidents’ Day would take the place of Washington’s birthday in the month of February, the lasting popularity of former President Abraham Lincoln, whose birthday comes ten days before Washington’s, was soon unofficially included in initial celebrations. Both of these Presidents are remembered for their leadership during times of great change in our country’s history—specifically, great changes made along the road to emancipation. 

Written by Samantha Seamans-Frizzell, Adjunct Professor in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences

Terms and History:

The term emancipation, as defined by Oxford Language Dictionaries, is “the fact or process of being set free from legal, social, or political restrictions; liberation.” George Washington is best remembered for his role during America’s War of Independence (1775–1783) for being an instrumental leader in liberating British America from the British. Born on February 22, 1732, in Popes Creek, Virginia, Washington’s initial inclination to join the burgeoning American Revolution came while serving as a Lieutenant Colonel in the British Army during the French and Indian War and would continue over the next twenty years. Washington was at the forefront of multiple negotiations with the British government to abolish various Acts of taxation without representation and the general protection of British interests over colonial interests. Ultimately, with the battle at Lexington and Concord in April of 1775, the American Revolution had officially begun, and by May of that same year, Washington, one of the 10 Founding Fathers of this newly forming democracy, was appointed General and Commander and Chief of the Continental Army. With the surrender of the British forces at Yorktown in 1783, the emancipation of the American colonies from British rule had begun, and the abolitionist movement to end American slavery took its place in the forefront.

Washington was made aware of this movement on a professional level through various abolitionists who had begun to contact him for support. Of the 10 founding fathers, seven owned enslaved peoples and Washington was one of them. Perhaps catalyzed by his defining role in founding a democracy, Washington became increasingly bothered by the idea of enslavement and committed to make a difference: “over and over again, he responded with his conviction that the best way to affect the elimination of slavery was through the legislature.” As several state leaders had legislated within their own states, Washington was in favor of a federal “program of gradual emancipation” that would secure the freedom of the enslaved over time. For the northern states, state legislation was to free 75% of enslaved peoples by 1810. Washington, who “described his ownership of slaves as ‘the only unavoidable subject of regret,’” freed his enslaved people through his will (1801) and was the only Founding Father to do so. There are two sides to every society, the public and the private. While the evolution of Washington’s public (legislature) and private (equal rights) views on slavery evolved equally over the course of his lifetime, the ideas about slavery for the public at large were very different. Of the 7 Founding Fathers who owned slaves, three became President, and only one can be acknowledged as furthering the abolitionist movement on the topic of slavery. It was not until the 6th President of the United States (1825-1829) and the son of the Founding Father, John Adams, came to office did the abolitionist movement again reach the Presidency.

Born July 11, 1767 in Braintree, Massachusetts, John Quincy Adams came from a family who did not enslave people. Therefore, whether it came through the ideals of his parents and/or the time period in which he was raised, Adams did not see slavery as a part of everyday life the same way Washington had, and spent his career advocating for emancipation. Adams’ public advocacy was not only limited to the enslaved but was extended to those Indigenous peoples who were ultimately displaced, “It was his 18-year effort that did away with the ‘gag rule,’ which automatically nullified anti-slavery legislation. Amid his campaigns to end slavery, he also petitioned Congress to provide land for displaced Native Americans.” An abolitionist both publicly and privately, Adams, a lawyer by trade, notably represented the men accused following the revolt on La Amistad (1839). The next notable President to be recognized on Presidents’ Day specifically for his role in emancipating the American enslaved is Abraham Lincoln.

Born February 12, 1809, near Hodgenville, Kentucky, Abraham Lincoln (“Honest Abe,” “the Rail-Splitter,” “the Great Emancipator,”) is best known as the 16th President of the United States whose “eloquence as a spokesman for democracy” fueled by his deep belief in self-government, became the foundation of the preservation of the Union and its ideals, which included the Emancipation Proclamation written to free the American enslaved. Lincoln firmly believed that slavery should be abolished publicly—meaning, federal legislation should reflect this ideal, however, Lincoln did not believe those who were freed from the bondage of slavery should automatically attain equal rights. Lincoln believed that equal rights should come over time. With the caution expressed by Washington more than a half-century previous proved genuine, there would be no plan put forth by Lincoln concerning equal rights as “On April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth became the first person to assassinate an American president when he shot and killed Abraham Lincoln in his box at Ford’s Theater in Washington. … A supporter of slavery, Booth believed that Lincoln was determined to overthrow the Constitution and to destroy his beloved South.” As a direct result of Lincoln’s efforts:

  • Ratified July 9, 1868: section one of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution called for equal protection of the law towards citizenship for those previously enslaved.
  • Ratified July 9, 1868: section 2 of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution called for equal protection of the law towards representation for those previously enslaved.
  • Ratified February 3, 1870: the 15th Amendment prohibits the federal government and each state from denying a citizen the right to vote based on the citizen’s “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

With emancipation achieved through legislature supported by Presidents Washington, Adams, and Lincoln, the movement towards equal rights now moves into the forefront of the abolitionist movement.

The term abolish, as defined by Oxford Language Dictionaries, is to “formally put an end to (a system, practice, or institution).” Over the next century, abolitionists worked diligently towards securing all citizens of America equal rights both publicly and privately, and several Presidents contributed to the abolitionist movement towards the equal rights of those previously enslaved: 

  • 18th President Ulysses S. Grant, signed several Acts into law to protect the rights of the previously enslaved, the Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1875 and the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871.
  • 32nd President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 for Fair Employment Practice in Defense Industries.
  • 33rd President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981, desegregating the Armed Forces.
  • 34th President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10730 and Presidential Proclamation 3204 to further the movement to abolish segregation in schools. 

However, the next significant change in the Civil Rights movement through the presidency came with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, after the death of 35th President, John F. Kennedy.

Born May 29, 1917, in Brookline, Massachusetts, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, while on the campaign for the 1961 Presidential election, became aware of the highly regarded abolitionist and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr’s arrest in Birmingham, Alabama, and personally contacted King’s family to express his concern over the situation and ask after the well-being of his family.  This act of consideration resulted in an endorsement by Martin Luther King Sr., early civil rights activist, Martin Luther King Jr’s father. After Kennedy was elected, though cautious towards pushing through any new civil rights legislation while the country was at its height of tensions, Kennedy found other ways of forwarding civil rights issues. Kennedy placed abolitionists as well as people he trusted to follow through with his ideals in many key positions. These individuals included his brother Robert, then-Attorney General, who was put in charge of voting rights, and then Vice President, Lyndon B. Johnson, who oversaw the President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity.

President Kennedy was the fourth U.S. President to be assassinated and this act was committed “as a result of a conspiracy” according to the JFK Assassination Records. As a result, Kennedy’s assassination has been seen by many as the second assassination of a President as a result of an attempt to bring forth emancipation. Upon Kennedy’s death, Johnson became President and was determined to push through the Civil Rights Act to its ratification on June 19, 1964, and signed into law July 2, 1964. This was the opening of the third and final chapter on the road to Civil Rights in the U.S., and the rest of the fight was now up to citizens.

Following Washington’s death in 1799, two years after his serving two terms as the first President of the United States (1789–1797), February 22nd became a day of remembrance. In 1885, Washington’s birthday was designated a federal holiday joining Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, the Fourth of July, and Thanksgiving, which generally also guaranteed a day off from work. Eighty-six years after the original inception of Washington’s birthday as a federal holiday, Presidents’ Day “officially took effect in 1971.” Since then, most communities remember Washington and Lincoln on the third Monday every February; one instrumental in the emancipation of our colonies, the other towards the emancipation of those enslaved. While several other Presidents can also be credited with furthering emancipation in America—Adams, Grant, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy—no better proof of their efforts and popularity can be found than the election (and survival) of 44th President Barack Hussein Obama II (2009–2017).

Happy Presidents’ Day!

Resources for continued learning:


The Civil War Curriculum (via American Battlefield Trust): 

The Amistad Case (via National Archives): 

Lincoln Archives Digital Project (via National History Education Clearinghouse): 

Abraham Lincoln Papers (via Library of Congress, Manuscript Division):

JFK Assassination Records (via National Archives): 

Remnick, D. (2010). The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama. Picador. (