Today is Presidents' Day, so let’s celebrate. But, wait a moment...is that actually the case? The official name of the public holiday is Washington's Birthday, not Presidents' Day. The latter is merely the popular usage, meant to focus attention on the office of the Presidency, rather than a single person. Yet, when the day was established as a legal holiday (in 1879), it was the first to specifically honor an American citizen - George Washington - and the day has never been officially changed. It is Washington's Birthday, not Presidents' Day. But why should we stand on ceremony? At SIL, we encourage independent thinking, so let's honor whichever President we want!
To that end, I'll be spending my President's Day remembering our 11th President: James K. Polk (1845-1849).
Why? Not because I am mad about North Carolina (his home state), or his policy positions, but rather because History - at heart - is the study of the consequences of actions. Historians need change to be kept in a job and nobody can accuse Polk of not doing enough. He accomplished the second-largest expansion of US territory through the annexation of Texas in 1845 and the establishment of the Forty-ninth parallel as the border between British Canada and Oregon Territory in 1846. That expansion was further inflated by the successful prosecution of the Mexican War in 1848 - a war that was instigated by marching an American cavalry patrol into Mexican territory and then declaring war on Mexico for the unprovoked attack that resulted. The new territories acquired by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1849, which ended the Mexican War, included the contemporary states of California, Nevada, and Utah, and parts of Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico. Add those states to Texas, Oregon, Idaho, and Washington and it is clear that America's continental ambition had met its great champion: James K. Polk.
If that is not enough to provoke some further examination of Mr. Polk on Presidents' Day, bear in mind that 1848 witnessed not only James Marshall's discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill but also the Seneca Falls Convention where Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton launched the Women’s Rights Movement. Moreover, the acquisition of new territory after the Mexican War crushed the sectional compromises over slavery that had previously held the fragile nation together, thus precipitating the Civil War. Polk also established an Independent Treasury providing order to the nation's financial system and passed a tariff that appeased Northerners and Southerners. And, he did it all in one term! He died of cholera three months after his term ended, having chosen not to run for re-election. 1845-1849: now that was a period of action and consequence.
In a nice piece of symmetry, it was during Polk's Presidency that construction began on the Washington Monument and the first American postage stamps went on sale, featuring a ten-cent stamp of...George Washington! So, perhaps Washington was Polk’s favorite predecessor. It is worth noting that in Polk’s day the holiday was celebrated on February 22nd, Washington’s actual birthday by the Gregorian calendar. Washington was born when the Julian calendar was in use, but lost a year and 11 days when the new calendar was adopted in 1752. With the 1968 Monday Holiday Law, we will never celebrate Washington’s birthday on the actual day as the third Monday of February can never fall later than the 21st. So, Presidents' Day! Or, Polk's Day! You can visit his White House page for more information.