In four short years he met his every goal
He seized the whole southwest from Mexico
Made sure the tariffs fell
And made the English sell the Oregon territory
He built an independent treasury
Having done all this he sought no second term
But precious few have mourned the passing of
Mister James K. Polk, our eleventh president
Young Hickory, Napoleon of the Stump
Whether or not Polk did indeed meet his every goal (and some would dispute the accuracy of that claim), there is something about Polk that fascinates those of us who are potus_geeks. In a post about Polk in a previous year I opened with the words "My name is Ken and I'm a Polkaholic." There is something addictive about learning about Polk that has caused me to read almost every book I could find about him, and it has motivated me to travel to the James K. Polk Ancestral Home, his de facto presidential museum located in Columbus, Tennessee not once, but twice. (Once I drove there and back from Pensacola, Florida, stopping in Mobile, Alabama to pick up a friend for the trip, all in the same day. If that's not rampant Polkaholism, I don't know what is.)
In an article in the Daily Beast, Polk was called the "least known consequential president" of the United States. He was born in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina on November 2, 1795. He moved to Tennessee, the state that represented as a Democrat, in the US House of Representatives. Polk served as the 17th Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1835 to 1839. He was Governor of Tennessee from 1839–1841, but lost his bid for re-election in 1841 and again in 1843.
Most considered Polk to be a has-been at that point, but he was the Democratic Party's surprise candidate for president in 1844, after neither of the three front-runners could win a 2/3 majority of the delegates. Polk defeated Henry Clay of the Whig Party by promising to annex the state of Texas. Polk was a protege of Andrew Jackson and governed on the principles of Jacksonian Democracy.
Polk was known for a number of foreign policy successes. He threatened war with Britain over the issue of which nation owned the Oregon Country, and then compromised and split the ownership of the region with Britain. When Mexico rejected American annexation of Texas, Polk led the nation into the Mexican-American War, which gave the United States most of its present Southwest. Many believe it was an unjust war. Polk secured passage of the Walker tariff of 1846, which lowered rates which benefited his native South, and he established a treasury system that lasted until 1913.
During Polk's term, the U.S. Naval Academy and the Smithsonian Institution opened, the groundbreaking for the Washington Monument took place, and the first postage stamps in the United States were issued. He was a workaholic and a micro-manager. Polk kept his promise to serve only one term and did not run for reelection.
Whether or not Polk "met his every goal" is a matter of contention. Research Professor Tom Chaffin ably makes the case, in his 2014 book Met His Every Goal? James K. Polk and the Legends of Manifest Destiny (reviewed here in this community) that the story of Polk entering the Presidency with this famous "to do list" is an apocryphal one. Nevertheless, Polk still deserves his reputation as the most significant President between Jackson and Lincoln.
Polk's time in the White House took its toll on his health. He never took a holiday and his time in the White House exhausted him. Polk lost weight and had deep lines on his face and dark circles under his eyes. After his term ended, he traveled home to Tennessee, embarking on a goodwill tour of the south on his way home. He is believed to have contracted cholera in New Orleans, Louisiana, on the way home. James K. Polk died at his new home, Polk Place, in Nashville, Tennessee, at 3:15 pm on June 15, 1849, three months after leaving office. He was buried on the grounds of Polk Place. Polk's last words were directed to his wife Sarah, to whom he was very devoted. He is reported to have said "I love you, Sarah. For all eternity, I love you." As Polk's biographer Walter Borneman wrote in his 2008 book entitled Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America: "Even if this utterance was embellished, there was nothing in Polk's life to suggest that the sentiment behind it was not true."
Polk had the shortest retirement of all Presidents at 103 days, and he was the youngest former president to die in retirement. He and his wife are buried in a tomb on the grounds of the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville, Tennessee. I paid a visit there in October of 2014 when I was in Nashville, staying at a hotel a very short walk away. There are those who would like to see Polk's remains relocated to Columbia, Tennessee. Stay tuned for what will happen on that front.
If you still haven't seen it, here is a video of the song James K. Polk by They Might Be Giants: