On Washington’s Real Birthday, Remembering James K. Polk

Many happy returns! February 22 is the 282nd birthday of George Washington. But wait, you may ask, didn’t we just celebrate that hallowed event last Monday by a) sleeping in, b) having brunch, c) getting a bargain on a microwave, d) building an igloo in the park, or e) all of the above? Yes, we did, but the 22nd is, in fact, the day Washington was born (at least according to the Gregorian calendar, which the British colonies adopted in the 1750s). The national holiday called George Washington’s Birthday falls on the third Monday of February, and thus, through an odd scheduling quirk, can never coincide with George Washington’s actual birthday.

Now that we’ve got our chronology straight, the next question you should ask yourself is: Did you celebrate Washington’s birth appropriately? I’ll guess you weren’t thinking much about American history while you were building that igloo last Monday. The good news is that you have the chance for a redo, and on Washington’s real birthday, no less. But please don’t just focus on our first chief executive, who’s already benefited from over 200 years of good publicity. This day of all days—a day not just fated but federally mandated never to be honored on its proper date—is perfect for delving deep into the more neglected annals of our nation.

Begin, if you will, with a search through the back catalog of that well-known Brooklyn smarty-pants duo They Might Be Giants. There you’ll find “James K. Polk,” an ode to our eleventh president, the “Napoleon of the Stump.” Originally released in 1996, the song inspired the video above, which was apparently created for a school history project.

TMBG’s John Linnell notes nasally toward the end that “precious few” mourned Polk’s passing, but surely the very existence of this tune has been something of a corrective. Scoring high marks both for catchiness and historical accuracy, it makes a fine soundtrack for observing the non-holiday. 

AUTHOR’S CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story attributed the song to TMBG’s John Flansburgh.  An astute reader pointed out in the comments that I credited the wrong John. It was in fact John Linnell, not John Flansburgh, who sang and composed the song. Why I wrote Flansburgh I sincerely have no idea—the difference between their two voices is beyond obvious and on any other day I would have gotten that right.