For several generations a popular story about St. James Church made the rounds of the Hudson River Valley community. One Sunday, an old Republican matriarch member was mortified to find her pews crammed with complete strangers, gawking and waiting for someone who was about the enter the church. Why were all these people here!? she asked a friend.
“It’s the President’s church!” her friend whispered.
To which an irritated congregant snapped back, “It used to be God’s!”
President Franklin D. Roosevelt had a habit of not only hijacking God’s church but George Washington’s birthday.
For a dozen years in the 1930s and 1940s, so many newspaper and magazines advertisements urged citizens to “attend the President’s birthday!” in January, that it seemed to replace the February holiday that “used to be George Washington’s.”
For most of American history, no incumbent U.S. President except the first one, George Washington, ever merited national recognition of his birthday, once uniformly celebrated on February 22.
George Washington’s birthday balls were held in his honor every one of his eight years as president, from 1790 until 1797 and for many years after his death at events hosted by some of his successors.
That was until January 1934, the first year Franklin D. Roosevelt marked his birthday as president.
FDR annual public extravaganza birthdays were massive ticketed arena events, all the funds being donated to what became the March of Dimes in the organization’s fight to eradicate infantile paralysis. While the public didn’t quite grasp that the President was entirely paralyzed from the waister down because he had created a visually deceptive way of simulating walking, it did know of the fact that had contracted polio as an adult.
The annual birthday celebration had begun with an annual gathering each January at the time of his birthday, of those who had supported FDR’s 1920 vice presidential candidacy; he gave them all cufflinks, one with their initials, the other with his. Over the years, many others were invited to become Cuff Link Club members, including his wife and secretaries – although the didn’t join the after-dinner poker games. The annual gathering proved to be the genesis for a larger celebration. Henry L. Doherty, a businessman and public relations expert suggested that President Roosevelt permit the formation of a National Committee for Birthday Balls, that would use his January birthday as a reason to sponsor dances all throughout the country and raise funds for the support of the Warm Springs, Georgia facility where he and thousands of other Americans suffering with paralysis sought therapeutic care.
During the first annual President’s Birthday Ball, there were some 600 celebrations and over a million dollars were raised. By its fourth year, the President had formed a National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis and enlisted actor Eddie Cantor to make an appeal on the radio for national support by sending a few extra coins they had, a “march of dimes to reach all the way to the White House.”
The birthday balls continued even through wartime. On January 30, 1942, just seven weeks after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii and the United States went to war, FDR’s birthday ball was held at the Uline Arena, now know as the the Washington Coliseum. When FDR began traveling the world to confer with British and Soviet allied leaders Churchill and Stalin, he was unable to make his annual radio speech to the birthday balls – but publicity photographs showed him cutting his cake as he flew around the globe.
After President Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, his immediate successor Harry Truman continued the tradition of his birthday balls, but they were eventually phased out. Still, FDR’s birthday balls proved a crucial factor in not only the treatment but eventual eradication of polio.
In the first year of his presidency, George Washington’s February birthday was turned into a day of public celebration, in the custom of the king of England. By the seventh year of his presidency, there were cannon salutes and church bells pealing all around the capital city of Philadelphia at dawn. That night there was an open house reception with punch and cake. That night, a grand ball was held, with the President dancing yet again.
The last year of his presidency was the grandest, There was a ball and buffer dinner for 12,000 people held at Rickett’s Ampitheater. “There was danger of being squeezed to death,” one attendee gasped.
The second president John Adams was not into further deification of the Father of His Country, and wrote “declined” across his invitation to the 1789 Washington Birthday Ball. The First Lady agreed with him, noting that the fall of the Roman Empire had been spurred by the glorification of military leaders.
“How could the president appear at their ball and assembly but in a secondary character,” wrote Abigail Adams. “To be held up in that light by all foreign nations?”
President Adams rejecting former President Washington in this way touched off a controversy within the Federalist Party, leading anti-Federalist leader Thomas Jefferson to write, “The late birthright has certain sown tears among the executive federalists.”
Hating on Washington’s Birthday was one of the few issues on which his two immediate successors agreed.
During his eight year presidency from 1801 to 1809, Thomas Jefferson did not recognize Washington’s Birthday as a holiday. In fact, considering it dangerously monarchial he successfully led a move among anti-Federalists to defeat a resolution that would have adjourned Congress to honor George Washington.
It was no wonder that widowed Martha Washington considered President Jefferson’s visit to her at Mount Vernon the second worst day of her life, after her husband’s death.
In February 1837, however, Democratic president Andrew Jackson revived Washington’s Birthday as a day to be formally recognized by the White House.
He hosted a public reception that day, seated in the center of the oval reception room, while his daughter-in-law and hostess Sarah Yorke Jackson stood behind him, shaking hands with the crowds, along with the Vice President and new president-elected Martin Van Buren.
Washington’s Birthday was marked with a formal masquerade ball under President John Tyler.
At his 1843 Washington’s Birthnight Ball, the widowed President was overcome with passionate pursuit of Miss Julia Gardiner of New York, the young woman who would become his second wife, as she came off the dance floor.
“I said, ‘No, no, no,’ and shook my head with each word,” Mrs. Tyler later recalled, “which flung the tassel of my Greek cap into his face with every move. It was undignified, but it amused me very much to see his expression as he tried to make love to me and the tassel brushed his face.”
As late as Grover Cleveland’s presidency, First Families marked the day with a special reception.
Over time, Presidents would begin coming from the White House in Washington down the Potomac to Washington’s Mount Vernon estate and burial place, to review a colonial military band and brigade and place a wreath at his gravesite.
The 1932 centennial of the first president’s birth drew the President and Mrs Hoover into a series of events, including attending a service at his Alexandria, Virginia church and visit to Mount Vernon.
Eleanor Roosevelt marked Washington’s Birthday by bringing Madame Chiang Kai-shek of China to Mount Vernon.
Soon enough, Beginning with James Buchanan and Harriet Lane taking Edward, England’s Prince of Wales, presidential visits to Mount Vernon began taking place all times of the year, diminishing the meaning of Washington’s birthday.
In more recent years, some Presidents have come to pay homage to George Washington on his birthday at Mount Vernon, most notably when the Reagans made the trek to the colonial estate to mark his 250th celebration in 1982.
Still, two years after Washington’s Birthday was made part of the three-day federal holiday that is now popularly called “Presidents Day Weekend” the day was given a unique form of celebration. On February 22, 1970, First Lady Pat Nixon hosted a performance of the Broadway musical 1776. Ironically, the protagonist of the show is John Adams and George Washington was the character who remained offstage.
It was a sort of delayed, belated celebration of John Adams, born in October.
It wasn’t long before other Presidents got into the birthday celebration business.
During his contentious presidency, Abraham Lincoln’s birthday was never celebrated by the public, all the more so because of the somberness of the Civil War over which he presided.
Yet within just eight hours of his assassination on April 14, 1865, Congressional Republicans met in secret caucus, concurring rather coldly that “his death was a godsend to our cause” of seeking harsh retribution on the southern states of the defeated Confederacy.
By the following year, on the martyred president’s February 12, 1866 birthday, the United States Senate and House of Representatives convened together to honor Abraham Lincoln with a soliloquy by historian George Bancroft.
Soon enough, northern states began officially marking February 12 as “Lincoln’s Birthday,” but not any one southern state marks the holiday.
Lincoln’s Birthday has never been declared an official federal holiday but being so close to the February 22 “Washington’s Birthday,” when the federal government determined to mark Washington’s Birthday in 1968 on the third Monday of February as part of a three-day federal holiday, it was easily blurred in understanding as a day to commemorate both Washington and Lincoln.
Soon enough the pluralism of “Presidents Day” was interpreted by mania to mean all Presidents. Technically, it is still only George Washington who is being honored on President’s Day Weekend (or “Presidents'” or “Presidents”).
“Lincoln Day,” became a form of birthday celebration, ostensibly honoring the sixteenth birthday, but it is strictly a partisan Republican day of events used by state and county party committees to fundraise.
By the early 2000s, there was a movement to drop the name “Lincoln” and swap in the familiar figure of the more contemporary president, Ronald Reagan.
There lingers still a touch of resistance to Lincoln’s emancipation of enslaved people of color in a remark on the matter made by South Carolina’s U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham in 2005: “We don’t do Lincoln Day Dinners in South Carolina. It’s nothing personal, but it takes a while to get over things.”
More commonly, the day is being used to commemorate both February-born presidents at “Lincoln-Reagan Day” fundraising dinners.
This custom, however, followed one more than a half-century old by the Democrats. By the 1930s, they had began hosting an annual “Jefferson-Jackson Day” dinner as its primary fundraising venue, attended by the likes of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.
While there was no specific date used for the event, it was held in latter March or early April, marking the periods of the two 19th century Democratic presidents’ birthdays – and the quadrennial season of presidential election state primaries.
As usual, the quest for money and power overcame sentiment.
Ignoring the February birthdays of Lincoln and Reagan and March and April birthdays of Jackson and Lincoln, during those years preceding a presidential election, both parties began hosting their presidential birthday fundraiser dinners as early as October in states that needed the money, and November in the state of Iowa, building up to its early state caucuses.
All of this public spectacle about such a personal day like a birthday would have been bewildering to many earlier presidents.
On his fifth-ninth birthday, July 11, 1826, while alone in a Philadelphia hotel, John Quincy Adams reacted grimly to his wife Louisa’s gift of a copy of the book The Death of Socrates. She gave it, she later claimed, “as a tribute of respect fr those superior talents and requirements which all acknowledge and venerate.”
He formally wrote, “Your affectionate, truly elegant present on my birthday will be kept and cherished by me till I join the assembly of my fathers.”
Back in the White House, his wife, son and nieces gathered and toasted him with champagne, in absentia, though First Son Charles Adams supposed the “little fete” would be criticized by “prudish citizens who make it a business to censure others.”
Birthdays were not, however, widely deemed to be appropriate, many considering it an act of vanity to celebrate them.
Certainly that is how the conservative and pious James Polk thought about birthdays.
On November 2, 1845, while seated in church with his nephew Knox Walker and wife Sarah Polk, President James Polk listened to a “solemn and forcible” when it dawned on him that it was his fiftieth birthday.
His way of celebrating the occasion, he wrote in his diary, was contemplating that he would soon “be sleeping with the generations which have gone before me. I thought of the vanity of this world’s honors, how little they would profit me half a century hence, and that it was time for me to be ‘putting him house in order.'”
Polk was a bit prescient.
He would only mark three more birthdays, dying on June 15, 1849, just three months after leaving the presidency.
Over time, successive presidents would mark their birthdays with private dinners with their families, as did William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson and eventually permit small delegations of friends or civic groups come to present a card or a cake, as did Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge.
In July of 1927, Coolidge became the first president photographed celebrating his birthday, munching on some cake made for him by an elderly woman while he was vacationing in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. It almost seemed like an event staged for the gathered photographers and newsreel cameramen. It was his
There was no large reception or anything even approaching a party, but the Chief Executive did come out of the lodge that was the summer White House to cut and eat a piece of birthday cake made by a local resident for him.
In July of 1931, while vacationing with his wife Grace in Swampscott, Massachusetts at the estate of their friends, Mr. and Mrs. Frank Stearns, the famously laconic Coolidge sliced a simple household table knife across what looked like a homemade layer cake.
It proved to not only be his last such public notice of his birthday, but his last birthday period.
He died six months later.
While FDR, like George Washington, had approved the public celebration of his birthday, Herbert Hoover was the first since Washington to have the public also insist on his public birthday.
In August of 1929, while vacationing at his wooded retreat in the Virginia mountains, all of Madison County turned out for “Hoover Day.” The chamber of commerce invited the President but there was no indication he would acknowledge the event or show up.
Still, the event went on: the governor arrived in a blimp, the Marine Band drove in from Washington, five hundred chickens and three hundred loaves of bread were ordered. With a crowd anticipated to be far larger than the entire county population, locals went out to shoot squirrels for Brunswick Stew and kill pigs for pork spits.
Lo and behold, President Hoover showed up, seating at a table where a fifty-pound ham was placed before him. He even served heaping plates of barbecue himself to the crowds.
Another year, Hoover was coaxed out of the Oval Office to stand stiffly and uncertain beside a relatively modest frosted mounded birthday cake made to resemble the U.S. Capitol dome for snapshots and slices on the South Lawn. Who provided the cake and why a bellhop in his uniform and hat is standing just as uncertainly next to Hoover is unclear
Like Coolidge, the modest Hoover did acquiesce to having his birthday used to celebrate him in a public manner as a former president too, agreeing to the request of those running his presidential library in his hometown of West Branch, Iowa, to come out for a number of years in the 1950s each August to be feted there.
The crowds were small, his cakes were relatively modest and the event was sometimes held in a tent, but the tribute gave the former president quiet but enormous personal pride.
Despite the Roosevelt Birthday Balls, nothing of the kind were held for Harry Truman. The massive ticketed-event presidential birthdays of more modern times began with Dwight D. Eisenhower, almost certainly using the FDR birthdays as a model. In 1953 the Pennsylvania Republican Finance Committee hosted a sixty-third extravaganza on October thirteenth for him.
The event, even with the thousands of guests, managed to convey a modesty. The President and Mrs. Eisenhower, adopted citizens of Pennsylvania, with a home in Gettysburg, drove into an arena with Ike at the reins of a horse-drawn buggy. A gala entertainment followed, and then everyone was handed a small cardboard box with a fried-chicken supper – including the Eisenhowers.
The event crescendoed with President Eisenhower slicing into a massive birthday cake, eventually all of it being cut up for the endless lines of guests.
The magic of television played a central role in what was obviously a strategic political move, a massive coast-to-coast celebration of President Eisenhower’s birthday just weeks before his 1956 re-election campaign. The October thirteenth event was dubbed “Ike Day,” and citizens were encouraged to build the anticipation of it by baking cakes and bringing them to those confined to hospitals and – “volunteers collected thousands of signatures from citizens pledging to vote.”
A half-hour special airing on CBS, the main party was hosted by actor Jimmy Stewart in Hollywood, with guest appearances by James Cagney, Irene Dunne, Nat King Cole and Helen Hayes. There were cut-away simulcasts to a white tie dinner in New York which wealthy underwriters of the show, including members of the Rockefeller and DuPont families attended, then to more humble celebrants in Ike’s hometown of Abilene, Kansas, and finally to the White House in Washington, where the President and his family watched.
The “Ike Day” TV special never mentioned the campaign, Eisenhower’s policies or promises or even referenced his Democratic opponent. The Washington Post cracked that, “without a single plea for partisan votes, it was the most politically effective program of the week.”
Several of Eisenhower’s eight birthdays as a former president were also marked by public celebrations, one of them an art gallery opening of his paintings. Harry Truman finally got into the birthday part scene, having his 1954 birthday celebrated as a former president to fundraise for his presidential library.
Eisenhower’s immediate successor, John F. Kennedy had his birthdays used to host gala celebrations, fundraisers for the National Democratic Committee and to clear up remaining debt from the 1960 presidential election. The first of these, in 1961, was hosted in Washington, D.C. Armory, where a massive cake in the form of the White House was placed in front of the dais.
The second, held in Madison Square Garden, became posthumously famous for the galaxy of early Sixties performers who performed for him, most notoriously the seductive singing of “Happy Birthday Mr. President,” by Marilyn Monroe.
The following year was a much smaller Democratic Party, “New York’s Birthday Salute to the President” but with the extravagant price of $1,000 a ticket. Ironically, former President Eisenhower was also in the hotel, receiving an award that night. In the White House, there was also a staff party for him, filled with gag gifts. That night, there was a birthday dinner cruise hosted for him on the presidential yacht Sequoia.
With Kennedy’s November 22 assassination being the date so persistently associated with him, Jacqueline Kennedy led the effort to instead have him remembered on his May birthday each year. The late president’s birthday would eventually come to serve as an annual fundraising dinner for his presidential library and museum, mark the annual Profiles in Courage Awards and often the opening of new exhibits.
Despite, the Eisenhower and Kennedy birthday extravaganzas, the idea of a massive public celebration hailing the fearless leader did not become a custom. LBJ, Nixon and Ford all celebrated their birthdays with friends, family and staff. There was one great Jimmy Carter extravaganza, hosted as a Democratic National Committee fundraiser in the Washington Hilton.
In 1981, Ronald Reagan’s first birthday as president, coming just weeks after he he took office, was a gala but private White House event, where the First Lady gathered the core group of California friends who had long backed his political career. Over the years of his presidency, she also managed to have his birthday marked during the course of his workday.
Once, in 1983, she interrupted a press conference he was conducting by coming in with a birthday cake and candles, making him blow out the candles and then sharing the cake with all of the working reporters. When Sam Donaldson shouted the question of whether Reagan thought he might be too old to run for re-election the following year, the First Lady interrupted – “How’d you like a piece of cake Sam? Right in the –” It broke up the entire press corps in laughter.
On his last birthday as President, Reagan was feted with another party of friends and family that matched his first one in the White House, further honored with the playing of a new composition, “The Ronald Reagan March” by Marvin Hamlisch.
A massive “The President’s Birthday” fundraising event for the National Republican Committee was hosted in celebration of George Bush’s first birthday as president, in June of 1989 at the new Washington Convention Center, a space he particularly liked since it was close to the White House and where one of his inaugural balls had been held.
Bill Clinton waited four years until he held one. In 1996, a massive Clinton Birthday extravaganza was hosted at Radio City Music Hall, a Democratic fundraiser that brought in $10 million. For him, the big treat was having his birthday marked by Aretha Franklin belting out her signature song in his honor, “Respect.”
There were satellite parties around the country, all of them hooked up to the big one in New York. On his actual birthday, however, the President spent the day donating his labor to helping rebuild a rural church.
Two years later, as the Lewinsky scandal began its breadcrumb trail to eventual impeachment, President Clinton spent the day quietly with his family, and the evening with his confidant and golfing companion Vernon Jordan.
On his first birthday as president, “W” played rounds of breakneck golf with family members. In 2005, during a state visit to Denmark, it was cake for breakfast and cake for lunch. Otherwise, there were no massive fundraising events held to honor George W. Bush’s July birthday during his eight years as president.
In August 2009, Obama celebrated at a working lunch with sixty members of the Senate Democratic Caucus.
The following year, both Democrats and Republicans used Obama’s birthday as a chance for political fundraising. For the President there was no cake and dinner with friends – including Oprah Winfrey.
His big one, in 2011, when he turned 50 years old was marked in his hometown of Chicago, a fundraiser for his forthcoming re-election campaign. Held in the city’s Aragon Theater, the headlining entertainer was Herbie Hancock.
Obama was unique among presidents. He had a habit of sharing his birthday cake with all those nearby, cutting the slices and handing out the plates himself.
He also seemed to love surprising unexpecting staff members with specially-made birthday cakes from the White House kitchen, interrupting meetings to bring in the cake himself.
By the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st century, the custom of making the birthday of a former president once again became a grand old deal. There were now a lot more of them living longer, all raising money for a lot of causes and thus a lot more presidential birthdays in any given calendar year.
Perhaps the most notable of these was held In 1994, for Ronald Reagan. A fundraiser for the Republican National Committee’s political operations he came from his Los Angeles home back to Washington D.C. for the event, attended by 2500 guests.
Held in the massive old National Building Museum, the heavily-furred crowds came in for the winter event from around the country, dancing to the old-fashioned music of Doc Scantlin and his Imperial Palms Orchestra. From London came his friend, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. On four hanging jumbo-screen, the audience, which paid $1000 a ticket, watched a film of nostalgic scenes from the Reagan years, from the cliffs of Normandy, to welcoming Mother Teresa, joshing with Bob Hope and Brooke Shields on an aircraft carrier before a crowd of sailors. Along with two days of dinners and luncheons, the Reagan birthday event raised $5 million for the Republican Party.
The former president’s speech hit the marks, stirring memories of his 80s presidency, by declaring the country “a bright beacon of hope and freedom,” praised the “collapse of imperial Communism” and spoke against “the shackles of too much government.” He backhandedly complimented the incumbent Democratic president by cracking he had committed “grand larceny” for successfully stealing his speaking style and focus on crime issues in his State of the Union address. More soberingly, former President Reagan offered a warning not just to Democrats but Republicans, Independents and all Americans:
“Great nations have responsibilities to lead and we should always be cautious of those who would lower our profile, because they might just wind up lowering our flag.”