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Rating the Presidents: James K. Polk

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the highest ranking, how would you grade the performance of James K. Polk as President of the United States? You can go to this link to cast your vote. James K. Polk might be another obscure President today, just another in a string of names nobody can remember between Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln, were it not for three things: 1) a catchy song from an American alternative band; 2) a now-disputed tale about how Polk began his presidency with a to-do list and checked off every item on it; and 3) a war that many believe was commenced on false pretenses.

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Polk was the 11th president of the United States and is the only President, thus far, to have previously served as Speaker of the House of Representatives, a post he held from 1835 to 1839. He served as Governor of Tennessee from 1839 to 1841. Polk became a protégé and strong supporter of Andrew Jackson. Like Jackson, Polk was born in the Carolinas and became an influential Tennessee politician. Like Jackson, both men built a successful law practice in Tennessee. Polk was elected to the Tennessee state legislature in 1823 and then to the United States House of Representatives in 1825, where he was a strong supporter of Jackson. He rose to the position of Chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, and became Speaker in 1835. Polk left Congress to run for governor of Tennessee. He won in 1839, but lost in the next two elections in 1841 and 1843. As a result, many considered Polk to be washed up as a politician and unelectable. They were wrong.

The Democratic Party required 2/3 of the delegates at their convention to choose their candidate for president. Like the song by the alternative group They Might Be Giants tells us, "in 1844, the Democrats were split", and it was over the issue of Texas annexation. Elder statesman Andrew Jackson was for it, but the leading nominee, Martin Van Buren, was against it. In the end, the delegates could not agree on any of the leading contenders. Instead they selected a "dark horse" candidate (someone nobody considered a likely contender) for the Democratic nomination for president in 1844. Polk went to his party's convention intending to be a potential nominee for vice president. But he emerged as a compromise candidate to head the ticket when no presidential candidate could secure the necessary two-thirds majority. In the general election, Polk defeated Henry Clay of the rival Whig Party.

Polk is considered by many to be the most effective president of the last quarter-century of the antebellum era. In part, this comes from a story told by historian and Polk cabinet member George Bancroft that Polk met every goal he set every major domestic and foreign policy goal he had set for himself. The story has been disputed by the author of Met His Every Goal: James K. Polk and the Legends of Manifest Destiny by research professor Tom Chaffin (reviewed here in this community.) Chaffin makes the case that the story of Polk's goal-setting exercise is probably apocryphal.

One of Polk's goals was to settle the boundary dispute with Great Britain over the Oregon Territory. After a negotiation that risked war, Polk reached a settlement that divided the territory for the most part along the 49th parallel. He also secured a substantial reduction of tariff rates with the Walker tariff of 1846 and in the same year, he re-established the Independent Treasury system. But it was the war against Mexico that was the centerpiece of Polk's Presidency.

One of the last acts of the Tyler administration was to gain approval for the annexation of Texas. Following the Texan ratification of annexation in 1845, Polk began preparations for a potential war with Mexico over Texas. He sent an army led by Brigadier General Zachary Taylor into Texas. Polk hoped that a show of force by the U.S. military could avert war and lead to negotiations with the Mexican government. Diplomatic efforts failed. On January 13, 1846, Polk ordered Taylor to proceed to the Rio Grande. Taylor's army skirmished on the northern side of the Rio Grande on April 25, resulting in the death or capture of dozens of American soldiers. When news of this reached Polk, he asked Congress for a declaration of war, claiming that the Mexicans had "shed American blood on the American soil". The House overwhelmingly approved a resolution declaring war. Later a one-term Illinois Congressman named Abraham Lincoln would accused Polk of going to war on a false premise. The war would result in the addition of 529,000 square miles of territory to the United States.

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Polk kept his campaign promise to serve only one term as President. He left office in 1849 and returned to Tennessee. His retirement was a brief one as Polk died in Nashville, most likely of cholera, three months after leaving the White House.

Scholars have ranked Polk favorably for his ability to promote and achieve the major items on his presidential agenda, but he has been criticized for leading the country into war against Mexico and for worsening sectional divides. His is also criticized for being a slaveholder for most of his adult life. Polk owned a plantation in Mississippi and bought slaves even while he was President. A major legacy of Polk's presidency is the major territorial expansion which caused the United States to reach the Pacific coast and became poised to be a world power.

After his death, Polk was not immediately appreciated. Sam Houston is said to have observed that Polk, a teetotaler, was "a victim of the use of water as a beverage". Abraham Lincoln still blamed Polk for what he believed to be an unjust war. Lincoln said of Polk at the end of his presidency, "I more than suspect that he is deeply conscious of being in the wrong, that he feels the blood of this war, like the blood of Abel, is crying to heaven against him. He is a bewildered, confounded and miserably perplexed man."

Nothing much was published about Polk until 1922 when Eugene McCormac published the two volume "James K. Polk: A Political Biography". McCormac drew heavily on Polk's presidential diary, first published in 1909. When historians began ranking the presidents in 1948, Polk ranked 10th in Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr.'s poll. At that time, President Harry Truman said of Polk, "James K Polk, a great president. Said what he intended to do, and did it." Polk ranked 8th in Schlesinger's 1962 poll, and 14th in the 2017 survey by C-SPAN.

Author Walter Borneman in his book Polk: The Man Who Transformed The Presidency and America, concluded that Polk expanded the power of the presidency, especially in its power as commander in chief and its oversight over the Executive Branch. In The Presidency of James K. Polk, author Paul H. Bergeron wrote: "Virtually everyone remembers Polk and his expansionist successes. He produced a new map of the United States, which fulfilled a continent-wide vision." But Amy Greenberg, in her history of the Mexican War entitled A Wicked War, was critical of Polk's motives for war. She wrote: "During a single brilliant term, he accomplished a feat that earlier presidents would have considered impossible. With the help of his wife, Sarah, he masterminded, provoked and successfully prosecuted a war that turned the United States into a world power."

Historians have criticized Polk for not perceiving that his territorial gains set the table for civil war, and for failing to appreciate how sectionalism and expansion would light the fuse for a Civil War. Fred Greenstein wrote that Polk "lacked a far-seeing awareness of the problems that were bound to arise over the status of slavery in the territory acquired from Mexico". William Dusinberre, author of Slavemaster President, argues that "Polk's deep personal involvement in the plantation slavery system colored his stance on slavery-related issues".

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In the final analysis, those who remember Polk appreciate his efficiency as an administrator. His micromanager style was effective in achieving the major goals of his presidency, whether they were declared in advance or not. But history will also diminish his stature because of his membership in the fraternity of presidency who saw slavery as an acceptable part of American life.

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