The stories about George Washington are so multitudinous that it is difficult to separate fact from fiction. Did he have wooden teeth? Did he throw a silver dollar across the Potomac? Did he really cut down a cherry tree? While some of the legends may be hard to believe, there’s one that is definitely true: he was born on February 11, 1731, and February 22, 1732. How could the Father of Our Country be born on two dates that are more than a year apart? To find the answer, we need to look 150 years before his birth to a Pope and a calendar.
It was 1582 when Pope Gregory XIII addressed the ongoing problem of the Julian calendar. By that point, the inaccuracies of that 1600-year old system for tracking the days (11 minutes and 14 seconds per year) had added up to the point where the vernal equinox was showing up 12 days earlier than it should. Since the formula for calculating the date for Easter is directly connected to a proper understanding of the vernal equinox, the Church had a vested interest in fixing the discrepancy.
The result was the Gregorian calendar. It allowed for a leap year every four years, except for those years that are multiples of 100, unless that year is also a multiple of 400. It was adopted by the Roman Catholic Church in 1582, but England and its colonies did not get around to adopting it until 1752.
In the meantime, in the remote community of Pope’s Creek, in the colony of Virginia, a little baby named George Washington was born. At the time of his birth, February 11, 1731, Virginia, as one of the colonies of England, was still using the Julian calendar. Eleven years later, in 1752, they switched to the Gregorian system. That switch necessitated some adjustments to the date.
The first adjustment involved moving New Year’s Day. Calendars across Europe had gotten mixed up during the Middle Ages, not every country recognized January 1st as the start of the year. Britain’s first day of the year was March 25. This meant that for about a third of year, it was a different year in England than it was in the rest of the world. When looking at old documents, you may see years written like this: “1731/2,” accounting for the difference in calendars. With that switch of New Year’s Day, it meant that anyone born between January 1 and March 25 would also need an adjustment in the year of birth to coincide the British calendar with the rest of the world. This meant that Washington’s birth year became 1732, instead of 1731.
The other big change was to remove eleven days from the calendar, so the date in Britain would align with the dates of other countries that used the Gregorian system. Consequently, Wednesday, September 2, 1752, was followed immediately by Thursday, September 14, 1752.
Washington took all this change in stride. As incredible as it may sound, he could truthfully say, “I cannot tell a lie,” when he explained how he celebrated his 20th birthday on February 11, 1754, and his 21st birthday exactly one year later, on February 22, 1753.
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