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James K. Polk: One of the Strongest of All Presidents Research Paper

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Updated: Dec 23rd, 2021

Early Life

James K. Polk was born in North Carolina in 1795, Polk soon moved to frontier Tennessee. When he was seventeen years old, Polk was strapped to a table, given a large amount of whiskey, and then suffered through a gallstone operation that broke his health. Unable to farm and fascinated by books, he went to the University of North Carolina, where he won honors in mathematics and classics. He studied law, entered politics, and was elected to the House of Representatives.

Polk quickly made his reputation as a Jacksonian who opposed nearly everything John Quincy Adams stood for. The Tennessean attacked “consolidation” of government, ideas favoring national universities or internal improvements, “expensive and unnecessary foreign missions,” and “European etiquette.” Polk showed little interest in political theory or history. Adams caustically remarked that Polk had “no wit, no literature…, no philosophy,” 1 but Adams had to grant that Polk possessed immense determination and will. He also was blessed with uncommon political instinct. His ability as an open-air orator won him the title “Napoleon of the stump.” In 1839, he became governor of Tennessee. In 1841 and 1843, however, he was defeated in the governor’s race. But in 1844, he was elected president of the United States.

11th President of the United States

James K. Polk was forty-nine years old when he entered the presidential office in March, 1845–the youngest incumbent of the White House up to that time. If he was not marked for greatness, his success was neither inconsequential nor accidental. His political experience was deep and long, giving him knowledge of party behavior as thorough as that of any of his contemporaries. Within eleven months, however, the United States annexed Texas and was about to declare war on Mexico.

The remarkable turnaround was brought about by James K. Polk. One of the most successful presidents in achieving his goals, especially in foreign policy, Polk is usually rated by historians as one of the half-dozen “great” presidents. Polk was not a popular President. 2

Though he literally worked himself to death in the White House, and though, unlike most Presidents, he achieved just about all of his goals, his cold, formal, suspicious, and humorless nature made it impossible for people to warm to him. When he became President, he prepared a form letter notifying his Cabinet appointees that they must devote all their time and energy to the Polk administration and not be candidates “to succeed me in the presidential office.” 3 The self-discipline and the politics and passions of U.S. foreign policy killed him. Within four months of leaving the presidency, Polk died at the age of fifty-four.

Speaker of the House/Governor of Tennessee

A man with cold grey eyes and a minimum of personal charm was this Tennessee politician. Hard work was his greatest pleasure in life, and of this James Polk gave unstintingly to the party he served. If he was narrow-minded, he was also concise, and that quality made him a most efficient subordinate. As a Congressman, a Speaker of the House, and an unsuccessful candidate for Tennessee’s gubernatorial election of 1842, he had served his party well.

When the energy and participation of Andrew Jackson in local politics waned, visits by Polk to the Hermitage recurred with greater frequency; upon him the “Chief” imposed increasing confidence. The climax to Polk’s ever-solicitous attention occurred one day after Jackson had dwelt long and bitterly on his successive rebukes from the Whigs of Tennessee. These enemies should be taught, said Old Hickory, and his friend should receive a just reward. In fact, sermonized General Jackson, Polk ought to be next vice-president of the United States.

Jackson’s immovable visitor had long desired the position. He had hoped to receive the honor in 1840, but with characteristic adherence to party discipline he had refused to compete against R. M. Johnson’s nomination when it then appeared that “Old Dick” was the choice of the party. Now it was different. Bluntly, coldly, James K. Polk acted on Jackson’s assurances and began a campaign for himself.

For managers he selected men of his own ilk, seasoned political warriors who would serve obediently. Steadfast friends, these were the first politicians to ever wreak that occasional phenomenon in American politics, the convention stampede to a dark horse. Gideon Pillow, the tough old egotist, was Polk’s Tennessee adviser. Cave Johnson, dean of Tennessee politicians and beloved among all who knew him, handled the Washington strategy. Sam Laughlin, publisher of the Nashville Union, was chief propagandist, except during those frequent intervals when Laughlin engaged too extensively with the bottle, whereupon some less prolific subordinate would temporarily wield the editorial pen.

From all other Tennessee Democrats Polk demanded unerring loyalty. Some there were, among this group, who proved hard to control–men like hotheaded, fist-swinging Andy Johnson, or elusive Aaron V. Brown, or overambitious Arthur O. P. Nicholson. When the latter had once stepped out of line to covet for himself the gubernatorial nomination, a grim warning emanated from the exacting Polk.

Personally plotting out each move in his campaign for the vice-presidential nomination, Polk sought to use Jackson’s influence as his chief weapon. In Washington, Cave Johnson mingled with every strata of Democrat, calmly pressing the name of his contender upon all. Jackson’s young nephew, A. J. Donelson, traveling through the Northwest, was commanded to pay special visits to those three important leaders of the Ohio wing, Medary, Tappan, and Allen. The Union daily flew Polk’s name for vice-president from the masthead, a solemn reminder to all Tennesseans of the next great political objective. With his usual methodical efficiency, Polk worked to win his reward at Baltimore.

His greatest difficulty lay in the strained relationship between his own forces and those of Van Buren. Separating the New York and Tennessee groups there was a dangerous gulf of suspicion which prevented any concert between the two. Many Van Burenites underestimated Polk’s political power and the degree of trust which Jackson imposed upon him. Some, like Governor Kemble, were openly contemptuous of the “Tennessee Dynasty,” who “were never true to Mr. Van Buren, nor could they be to any man who did not squirt tobacco juice.” 4 Others felt that the vice-presidential nomination should go to someone from the Deep South. On this question Van Buren himself persisted in maintaining an aggravating silence which little helped to establish any semblance of cordial feeling.

Relying upon this disaffection, the maverick A. O. P. Nicholson organized a Cass movement which threatened to undermine Polk’s whole strategy for the vice-presidential campaign. Since the Nicholson group was ready to support him but not Van Buren, at the state convention Polk was forced to compromise with these dissident followers. The Tennessee delegation was pledged only to support Polk for vice-president, while no preference was declared for any presidential candidate. Hastily Polk sought to make amends to Van Buren for this result. Tennessee, he promised, would be true to the ex-President when the time for decision arrived.

Annexation of Texas

That this first “dark horse” candidate in American history won the presidency owed much to Texas and the power of Manifest Destiny. When the Texas issue was erupted in early 1844, the two leading presidential candidates, Democrat Martin Van Buren of New York as well as Whig Henry Clay of Kentucky stated in public they did not want to annex Texas. Both preferred the issue to die down so that they could discuss less dangerous, but politically attractive, issues such as tariff and banks. Polk, however, came out for annexation. Already close to Andrew Jackson, who, with his dying breath, now worked to take Texas, Polk won support from powerful politicians in the South and West who wanted a spread-eagle foreign policy.

These operators manipulated the Democratic nominating convention’s rules and, when it deadlocked, pushed Polk forward as a compromise candidate. The nominee’s platform called for strict construction of the Constitution, but also “the reoccupation of Oregon and the re-annexation of Texas at the earliest practicable period.” 5 (The “re-” prefixes alluded to the Democrats’ mistaken claim that John Quincy Adams had happily given away U.S. claims to Texas and Oregon in the 1820s.) The 1844 campaign was close and bitterly fought. The Whigs returned the name-calling in kind, but Polk won by a paper-thin margin.

Oregon Territory & Mexican-American War

Polk also left another historic legacy. The way in which he led the United States into the Mexican War set precedents for later powerful chief executives—indeed, provided an early preview of the so-called “imperial presidency” of the twentieth century.

Polk did not want war. In his diplomacy with Mexico he had hoped to secure California by purchase. His eagerness had provoked a clash of arms, but having become involved in war, he was determined to prolong the conflict until he could drive Mexico into a cession of California. To admit such war aims publicly, the President feared, would be fatal. The principle of indemnity, clearly recognized under the law of nations, was acceptable only to those Americans who placed responsibility for the war on Mexico.

What disturbed Polk was the refusal of the Whigs to do so. His own action in sending Taylor to the Rio Grande left sufficient doubt in the minds of his opposition that it elicited an unending review of the war’s causes. Politicians who attacked the war could hardly approve the annexation of California as the fruit of that struggle. Polk did not want to be accused of conducting a war of conquest. To the American public and members of Congress, therefore, he remained silent on the subject of California.

Polk did what he could to make this destiny manifest while he was in the White House. He was “a short man with a long program.” 6 He settled a boundary dispute with Britain over Oregon Territory quite peacefully; but he precipitated a war with Mexico over his territorial ambitions in the Southwest. During the Mexican War he quarreled with Generals Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott because he thought their military exploits were encouraging them to have presidential ambitions.

Oregon was the more serious challenge, but the difficulties it presented the President were largely self-imposed. The traditional American diplomatic offer of the forty-ninth parallel had been eminently reasonable, but under the stimulation of manifest destiny doctrines, Western Democrats demanded all of Oregon to the Alaska boundary and forced their platform on the Democratic party in 1844. If this stand had some appeal politically, it was impossible diplomatically.

There was no apparent way in which the nation could gain the fifty-four forty line without more or less fighting. Yet Polk in his inaugural address reaffirmed the party’s conviction that the American title to Oregon was “clear and unquestionable.” He was in no mood to challenge the Western Democrats by abandoning the campaign platform. Nor did he run much risk of antagonizing his expansionist friends in his subsequent negotiations with Great Britain during the summer of 1845. Actually only two minor issues still separated the two nations, those of Vancouver Island and the navigation of the Columbia.

Privately both Polk and the British government had arrived at the necessity of reaching an agreement at the forty-ninth parallel, but Polk was still too encumbered politically to pursue details. He assured his secretary of state that his party commitments would not tolerate another offer of compromise.

Post-Presidency

For Polk the price of leadership came high. He had never sought the presidency; throughout his last year in the White House he looked forward to his retirement to private life. “I have now passed through two-thirds of my Presidential term,” 7 he observed in November, 1847, “& most heartily wish that the remaining third was over…” 8 On March 3, 1848, he noted in his diary, “This day closes my third year in the Presidential office.

They have been years of incessant labor, anxiety, & responsibility.” 9 On the day that he left the White House he recorded, “I feel exceedingly relieved that I am now free from all public cares.” 10 But with leisure did not come the recuperation of body and serenity of mind he required. The labors and anxieties of the past had been too exhausting. His health started to deteriorate day by day and finally he died on 15th June 1849 that is three months after leaving office.

Bibliography

Behrman, Carol H. James K. Polk: Presidential leaders. Minneapolis: Twenty-First Century Books, 2005.

Boller, Paul F. Presidential anecdotes. New York: Oxford University Press US, 1996.

Byrnes, Mark Eaton. James K. Polk: a biographical companion. California: ABC-CLIO biographical companion, 2001.

Holt, Michael F. The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Richard J. Ellis, “The Joy of Power: Changing Conceptions of the Presidential Office,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 33, Blackwell Publishing: 2003.

Smith, Justin H. The Annexation of Texas. New York: READ BOOKS, 2008.

Footnotes

  1. Paul F. Boller, Presidential anecdotes (New York: Oxford University Press US, 1996), 98.
  2. Michael F. Holt, The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 68-72.
  3. Paul F. Boller, Presidential anecdotes (New York: Oxford University Press US, 1996), 100.
  4. Michael F. Holt, The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 110-119.
  5. Justin H. Smith, The Annexation of Texas (New York: READ BOOKS, 2008), XV.
  6. Paul F. Boller, Presidential anecdotes (New York: Oxford University Press US, 1996), 100.
  7. Mark Eaton Byrnes, James K. Polk: a biographical companion (California: ABC-CLIO biographical companion, 2001), 248.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Carol H. Behrman, James K. Polk: Presidential leaders (Minneapolis: Twenty-First Century Books, 2005), 96.
  10. Richard J. Ellis, “The Joy of Power: Changing Conceptions of the Presidential Office,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 33, (June 2003, Blackwell Publishing): 269-290.
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