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Historically Speaking: A Day for Presidents

A FAREWELL: This column of “Historically Speaking” is my final column for the Brooklyn Eagle. History has been good to me. The column ran sporadically in The Brooklyn Paper for two years and now for 8 years with regularity in the Eagle. It even resulted in a bound collection containing a selected few of my earlier columns. I know I’m not finished with history or writing.

Working with the staff of Brooklyn’s only daily community newspaper has been fun and rewarding. It’s been a valuable continuum after teaching journalism for over 25 years and serving Brooklyn as the Borough Historian for another 8 years. And, of course, association with the name of the historic Brooklyn Eagle has been an honor.

Perhaps my column will re-surface in another form elsewhere in this constantly changing world of journalism. My father and grandfather, both newspapermen, would be proud. Thanks for your interest and attention. The rest, as we say, is history, and so am I.

By John B. Manbeck
Special to the Brooklyn Eagle

Last year I wrote a column about the two presidents whose birthdays we celebrate annually in this month. But the holiday seems to be restrictive, particularly since the appellation — Presidents Day — lacks an apostrophe. Does that apply to all Presidents or just the two whose birthdays are in this month, since the word “birthday” has been dropped as well?

As a generic holiday, it could apply to those presidents who visited Brooklyn; from Cleveland to Truman, every President visited Brooklyn and spoke at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. But some have stayed a bit longer for special ceremonies.

Before being elected as “the Father of his Country,” General George Washington commanded the Battle of Brooklyn in 1776, and he later returned to the borough as President in 1792 after the American Revolution. Of course, his office was across the East River in Manhattan at the time. Lincoln visited Brooklyn in 1860 when he sat in pew number 89 of Henry Ward Beecher’s Plymouth Church while he was in town to deliver his provocative speech against the “evils of slavery” at Cooper Union in Manhattan.

Ulysses Grant visited Brooklyn to open the Manhattan Beach Hotel in 1878 but by then he was no longer President. His successor, Rutherford Hayes, also visited Manhattan Beach, as President, to open the Oriental Hotel. President Chester Arthur visited Brooklyn at the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883; at the same occasion, Grover Cleveland crossed the same bridge, but he was then the governor of New York.
William Howard Taft visited Fort Greene to dedicate the Martyrs Monument, as President-Elect. In the 20th century, Woodrow Wilson made a trip here to participate in a Navy Yard event. Another Democrat, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, laid the cornerstone for a Brooklyn College building. Both Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton drove through Brooklyn. Johnson was on a campaign run and Clinton visited Hudde Junior High School.
I’m not sure how many visited in February but maybe we can call it Presidents Visiting Month.

But it all started with birthday parties. Celebration of Washington’s birthday as a holiday was enacted by Congress as a federal holiday in 1885. This date marked the first federal holiday to honor an American citizen. But there was a hitch in the date of February 22.

Washington’s birth date, February 22, 1732, is recorded in the Gregorian calendar, but that wasn’t recognized by England, our mother country at the time, until 1752. According to the Julian calendar in use at Washington’s birth, he was born on February 11, 1731, a year and a week earlier.

Lincoln’s birth date is a bit clearer: February 12, 1809. But no federal holiday ever honored Lincoln. The earliest observation of his birthday occurred in Buffalo, New York, in 1874. It was a legal holiday in some states, including New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

These complications were remedied, in a way, by the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, enacted in 1971. It designated a Monday between February 15 and 21 as the holiday celebrating Washington’s birthday, and since this always falls between Lincoln’s and Washington’s birthdays, we tend to think of Presidents Day as honoring them both.

Point of information: Washington died at 67 years old, basically from a cold; Lincoln was shot when he was 56 years old.

We celebrate Presidents Day with the eternal guarantee that it will not fall on either of the February birthdays of our most honored chief executives.

How’s that for a precedent?      

February 22, 2012 - 1:27pm


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