Francis Scott Key & George Washington’s Birthday (aka. Presidents Day?)

Public Law 90-363 (June 28, 1968)

NOTE: In celebration of George Washington’s Birthday, the Star Spangled Music Foundation will present Poets & Patriots in recital at Stamps Auditorium on the University of Michigan’s north campus at 8:00 p.m. Click here for more information.

The wandering apostrophe in the name of Presidents’ Day / President’s Day / Presidents Day has a logical explanation—it turns out that not one of these variants is the actual, official name of the federal holiday. While “Presidents’ Day” is the spelling preferred by most authorities, these names are more advertising copy than law. First approved in 1879, the federal celebration of George Washington’s birthday was held initially on Washington’s actual birthday of February 22 (New Style Julian Calendar) and was first celebrated officially in 1880.  Public Law 90-363 signed into law by Lyndon Johnson by on June 28, 1968 (see image) shifted the celebration to the third Monday in February beginning in 1971. Yet despite proposals to rename the day as “Presidents’ Day,” this law left the holiday’s name as it was — “Washington’s Birthday” — and this remains the most recent word on the subject.

As with Key’s anthem, Congressional action to celebrate Washington’s birthday was less an act of creativity than recognition of a community practice, one begun during Washington’s lifetime. Among the earliest American lyrics written to the tune that would be used by Key for his anthem was created by Susanna Rowson to celebrate George Washington’s birthday in 1798.

Rowson’s lyric marked the still living former President’s 66th birthday. (He would die the next year at age 67.) It was patriotic songs like these and others featured in our Poets & Patriots recording project that shifted the symbolic resonance of the English convivial tune from British sociality to American patriotism. The melody was thus transformed into an “American” tune and an appropriate—and in many ways Francis Scott Key’s only—choice to animate “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

In 1813 (more than a year before Key penned his most famous lyric) the Washington Society of Alexandria invited Francis Scott Key to address its members on the occasion of George Washington’s birthday. These were dark days for America as early success in the War of 1812 had turned into a stalemate and the British fleet’s superior troops and firepower were expected in the Chesapeake Bay region all too soon.  Key, inspired by the purpose of the Society “professing and cherishing [Washington’s] principles,” chose Washington’s influential 1796 Farewell Address as his subject. Remembered today primarily for its admonition against the divisive influences of party and faction, Key amplified all of Washington’s oration as “maxims of political wisdom, which I trust will never be forgotten”—but found one passage in particular that he characterized as “the bounden duty of every citizen, the indispensable obligation upon the conscience of a patriot:”

Of all the dispositions and habits, which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports. —In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labour to subvert these great Pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and Citizens.—The mere Politician, equally with the pious man, out to respect and to cherish them.—A volume could not trace all their connexions with private and public felicity. (Key’s quotation, excerpted, from George Washington’s Farewell Address.)

Key goes on to define his own sense of Patriotism. It is an obligation to one’s community. Guided by the knowledge of “the nature and condition of man” provided by religion, the Patriot is called to a life of service—”an impulse of filial affection is awakened within him, that binds him unalienably to the land of his birth.”<1>

Key, who was against the War of 1812, suggests here that Americans of his day are falling short of their divine responsibility to community. Thus, the loss of prosperity, “present distress” and the “still more awful anticipation of approaching calamity” [i.e., the arrival of the British fleet] are a form of “common punishment.” We should thus take as sincere Key’s jubilation in the fourth verse of his famous lyric, after the British have been repulsed, when he proclaims:

Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the Heav’n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: “In God is our trust.”

Note: other selections from our Poets & Patriots recording project celebrate Washington. Although written for John Adams, Paine’s text to “Adams and Liberty” arguably offers more praise to the nation’s first chief executive. Among the most interesting early musical variants of the Anacreontic melody is “When Death’s Gloomy Angel Was Bending His Bow,” that mourns Washington’s death. Click here to preview these tracks on iTunes.

<1> The complete text of Key’s oration is reprinted in Edward S. Delaplaine’s Francis Scott Key: Life and Times (1937), pp. 105–115. See our books resources page for more info.

About starspangledmusic

StarSpangledMusic.Org is a project of the not-for-profit Star Spangled Music Foundation. It is administered by Professor Mark Clague (University of Michigan) and Dr. Susan Key, a musicologist of American music who resides in California.
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