Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth President of the United States, was born in a single-room log cabin on Sinking Spring Farm in LaRue County, Kentucky on February 12, 1809. He was the son of Thomas Lincoln, an illiterate pioneer farmer, and Nancy Hanks Lincoln, who died when Abraham was nine years old. It was Thomas Lincoln’s second wife, Sarah Bush Johnston who, while illiterate herself, recognized Abraham’s “uncommon natural talents” and encouraged his famous bookishness.
Self-taught and from humble origins, Abraham Lincoln became one of the most revered and uniquely appealing United States Presidents. Known as Honest Abe, the Rail-splitter, and the Great Emancipator, Lincoln was a skilled orator who preserved the Union during the American Civil War and issued the Emancipation Proclamation. His assassination in 1865 contributed to Lincoln’s legendary place in American history and culture.
Despite his stature among many Americans as one of the greatest United States presidents, only a small number of U.S. states, including Connecticut, Illinois, Missouri, and New York, observe Lincoln’s birthday on February 12 as a legal, public holiday. In other states, Lincoln’s birthday is celebrated in combination with President George Washington’s birthday on the third Monday of each February. The combined federal holiday is officially named Washington’s Birthday but is also known as Presidents Day.
Washington’s Birthday was first declared a federal holiday in 1879 by an Act of Congress. The Uniform Holidays Act of 1968 changed the date of commemoration from Washington’s actual birthday on February 22 to the third Monday of February. Because of this Act, and the fact that President Lincoln’s birthday falls on February 12, many people now refer to the holiday as “Presidents Day” and consider it a day honoring all American presidents. However, neither the Uniform Holidays Act nor any subsequent law changed the name of the holiday from Washington’s Birthday to Presidents Day.
Several Lincoln devotees have attempted to create a holiday in honor of the sixteenth President. In 1873, Julius FrancisExternal, a shopkeeper from Buffalo, New York, proposed a holiday celebrating President Lincoln. Francis, a bachelor and collector of Civil War and Lincoln memorabilia, declared that his campaign for a Lincoln holiday was “my wife and my life.” Francis sent Congress elaborate memorial pamphlets as part of his campaign and organized the first public celebration of Lincoln’s birthday in Buffalo. Until his death in 1881, Francis held annual celebrations of Lincoln’s birthday, renting a hall and organizing speakers, poets, and musicians to celebrate the martyred president. His attempts to persuade Congress to establish a legal Lincoln’s Birthday holiday were not successful, but in 1877 Francis organized the Buffalo Lincoln’s Birthday Association to continue the campaign after his death.
In 1951, Californian Harold Stonebridge Fischer formed a Presidents Day National Committee and lobbied Congress for the creation of a holiday to honor the office of the president rather than a particular president. He proposed March 4, the original Presidential Inauguration Day, as the date for “Presidents Day.” The bill was defeated in the Senate Judiciary Committee, but several state governors subsequently issued proclamations declaring March 4 “Presidents Day” in their states.
Even in locations where it is not a legal holiday, many groups and individuals celebrate Lincoln’s birthday, and annual wreath-laying ceremonies take place at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. and at the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site in Kentucky. The ceremony in Washington has been conducted every year since the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in 1922. Activities in other locations include re-enactments, parades, concerts, and readings of the Gettysburg Address.
- The Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress include treasures such as Lincoln’s first and second inaugural addresses, his preliminary draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the two earliest-known drafts of the Gettysburg Address.
- The Letters to Lincoln transcription challenge helped the Library provide better access to the documents and correspondence found in the Abraham Lincoln Papers held by the Library’s Manuscript Division. One of several transcription campaigns, this effort was launched by the Library’s crowdsourcing project, By The People, which offers opportunities to interact with our treasured resources.
- The Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana includes more than 11,000 items, such as law papers, sheet music, broadsides, prints, cartoons, maps, drawings, letters, campaign tickets and other ephemeral items documenting the life of Abraham Lincoln.
- Find more resources about Lincoln through Abraham Lincoln: A Resource Guide.
- Search Today in History on Abraham Lincoln to learn about more events in his life and presidency occurring on March 4, April 14, September 22, November 2, November 19, and December 3.
- Visit the website for the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park in Kentucky.
- Search Congress.gov to find Congressional bills to designate Lincoln’s Birthday as a legal public holiday.
- Teachers can view Lincoln-related primary source sets and lesson plans through the Library’s Teachers site.
- Read a blog post from the Law Library of Congress about Presidents Day and Library collection items related to Abraham Lincoln.
- View an online exhibition related to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
- Learn more about Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief through the online presentation With Malice Toward None: The Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Exhibition, created for the two-hundredth anniversary of Lincoln’s birth.
- Search Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers to find articles about historical Lincoln’s birthday celebrations.