Image of Mount Rushmore

There it is on the calendar: Presidents Day. It’s been part of most American lives since grammar school, but how was the day chosen and who are those it honors?

George Washington’s birthday (February 22, 1732) was declared a holiday by an Act of Congress in 1879. In 1885 it was added to the list of four initial holidays observed by federal workers in the District of Columbia. How far we’ve come! Presidents Day, as it was rebranded later, is one of 11 federal holidays now celebrated by federal workers and others, joining New Year’s Day, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Memorial Day, Juneteenth, Independence Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day.

Because Abraham Lincoln’s birthday is also in February and was widely celebrated, the two birthday parties were combined into one big bash of equal recognition for two of our country’s most famous statesmen. The Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which took effect in 1971, officially shifted both celebrations to the third Monday in February rather than their set dates. Now Presidents Day is an opportunity to honor those two great leaders, as well as the other presidents in our nation’s history.

Left to Right: President George Washington, Gilbert Stuart, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons | President William Henry Harrison, Albert Gallatin Hoit, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons | President Abraham Lincoln, Alexander Gardner, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons | President Ronald Regan, Unknown Author, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

George Washington, William Henry Harrison, Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan were all born in February. Presidents Day never falls on any of their actual birthdays because their birthdays are either too early or too late in the month to hit the third Monday in February slot.

Presidential Military Service

Sure, the president is the commander-in-chief, but boots-on-the-ground military service is not a requirement of the office. And while the U.S. Constitution bars active-duty military leaders from holding the office, having a little former military duty couldn’t hurt. The majority of our nation’s 46 presidents, in fact, do have varying levels of military service on their CV. Among those that may surprise you are:


Andrew Johnson
, 1862-1865, Brigadier General, U.S. Army

Mathew Benjamin Brady, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Lyndon B. Johnson, 1940-1964, Commander, U.S. Naval Reserve

U.S. Navy, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Richard M. Nixon, 1942-1966, Commander, U.S. Naval Reserve

Image of President Richard Nixon In Naval Reserve Uniform
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Gerald R. Ford, Jr., 1942-1946, Lieutenant Commander, U.S. Naval Reserve

Photograph of Lieutenant Commander Gerald R. Ford, Jr., Showing His Parents a Map of the Pacific Theater after Returning from Active Duty
Public Domain via National Archives Catalog

Jimmy Carter, 1946-1953, Lieutenant, U.S. Navy

Graduation of Jimmy Carter from U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland, Rosalynn Carter and Lillian Carter Pinning on Ensign Bars
Public Domain via National Archives Catalog

Ronald Reagan, 1942-1945, Captain, U.S. Army

Captain Ronald Reagan in the Army Air Force working for the 1st Motion Picture Unit in Culver City, California. 1943-44.
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

George H.W. Bush, 1942-1945, Lieutenant JG, U.S. Navy

US Navy 100714-N-6632S-109 Former President George H.W. Bush speaks with Cmdr. William Pennington, executive officer of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush
Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Kevin J. Steinberg, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

George W. Bush, 1968-1973, First Lieutenant, Texas Air National Guard

Texas Air National Guard, Public domain via Wikimedia Commmons

Tuning Into Our Presidents

Because Armed Forces Entertainment brings incredible musical acts to our troops overseas, we thought it would be interesting to look at the musical prowess of our presidents.

Former President Harry Truman, Bess Truman and Pat Nixon Listen to President Nixon Play the Piano at the Truman Library, March 21, 1969
President Richard Nixon playing piano, 1969. Oliver F. Atkins, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons 
  • Thomas Jefferson said, “music is the favorite passion of my soul.” He enjoyed singing, played violin, clavichord and cello, and especially loved the music of Hadyn, Vivaldi, Handel and Boccherini. He is credited as the first president to invite the U.S. Marine Band to an inauguration, and the group has played at every inauguration since that 1801 performance.
  • Woodrow Wilson also played the violin and enjoyed singing. During WWI he famously quipped, “Music now, more than ever before, is a national need.”
  • Silent Calvin Coolidge wasn’t quiet about his musical hobby of playing the harmonica.

President Harry Truman playing piano, 1951. Abbie Rowe, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
  • Harry Truman played the piano from an early age, and famously had a piano near his desk in the Oval Office. “My choice early in life was either to be a piano-player in a whorehouse, or a politician. And to tell the truth, there’s hardly any difference,” Truman once joked. During the first televised tour of the White House in 1952, Truman played Mozart’s A Major Sonata for the cameras. A star was born.
  • Although Dwight D. Eisenhower wasn’t a musician, he and wife Mamie were the first presidential couple to bring musical theater to the White house – in 1956. His support of the musical arts compelled him to release a compilation album, The President’s Favorite Music: Dwight D. Eisenhower which included Bach, Beethoven, Strauss and Gershwin.
  • Richard Nixon famously loved playing the piano. He played his own composition live, backed by violins, on the Jack Paar Program in 1962. Years later, in 1974 and as president, he performed God Bless America at the opening of the new Grand Ole Opry theater.
  • Bill Clinton famously played tenor saxophone during his presidential campaign swing through TV shows, playing on The Arsenio Hall Show. He honed his skills throughout his youth and was First Chair Saxophone in the Arkansas State Band before turning his attention to law.

This Presidents Day, take a moment to think about the enormity of the job and the real people who have held it. Like you, they have worked hard, served their country well, and rounded out their lives with the pursuit of the arts.

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