Pre-service occupations: state legislator, U.S. representative (Speaker of the House), governor (Tennessee)
Key events during his administration: Mexican War; peace with England over Oregon territory; states admitted to the Union: Texas (1845), Iowa (1846) and Wisconsin (1848); annexation of territories that eventually became New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah and California, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming; reduction of the tariff (1845); and establishment of the independent Treasury (1845); Seneca Falls Conference (1848, the first major women's sufferage conference).
Presidential rating: Highly successful, and mixed on popularity
“Who is James K. Polk?” Whigs derisively asked during the election of 1844. The answer, actually, is simple. James K. Polk could rightly claim to be the most successful president in America’s history, because he is the one man who achieved all of his stated goals by the time he left office.
He’s the president most associated with manifest destiny, having added more territory to the United States than any other president, including Jefferson. (Although, John Tyler could rightly claim co-ownership of the manifest destiny mantle, at least in an idealistic sense, as I explained in the last entry.)
Historians generally place Polk near the top of the heap when they rank the presidents, but outside of academic circles and history enthusiasts, he’s largely forgotten. Why?
Perhaps it’s because he served one term then died shortly after and never became a senior statesman. Perhaps it’s because, as biographer John Seigenthaler suggests, he was sandwiched between two Whig terms (well, Tyler wasn’t much of a Whig) and was stuck in a period of largely uninspired presidential leadership—“lost” between the giants of Jackson and Lincoln.
Perhaps the war that he led so overshadows him that even if America vaguely remembers the Mexican War that added New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, Utah and California to the Union—and made sure Texas stayed in—America just doesn’t remember the president associated with that war.
Regardless, when historians rank Polk, they usually place him at number 7 or 8. But just who was he?
A sickly child
When people think of presidents who were sick as children, most think of Theodore Roosevelt. (Teddy’s cousin FDR, of course, is the one people think of as a sickly adult.) But James Polk had quite a rough and painful childhood. Often ill, he couldn’t build his physique doing chores on the farm with his brothers, so he paid attention to politics. His grandfather, father and uncles would rail against Federalists and praise Jefferson, and naturally Polk became a life-long republican.
His parents wanted to send him to school, but first they had to deal with his frightening and baffling illness. They had enough money to send him to one of the best surgeons in the young country. It turns out that young Jim had urinary stones—not gall stones as had long been thought by historians; biographer John Seigenthaler believes he’s discovered that young Jim had urinary stones by matching the symptoms and results and verifying this with several physicians. At age 11, a doctor probed for the stones and removed them, with alcohol being the only anesthesia. The operation most likely made him sterile, as Polk would father no children.
You can imagine the sheer agony of that surgery, but apparently, as Seigenthaler alludes, it gave Polk a genuine toughness.
Now healthy, he studied law and under excellent tutelage, entered the bar and practiced in Tennessee. Even during the Panic of 1819, he did well. And in the 1820s, politics lured him and he never looked back.
Like many antebellum presidents, Polk owned slaves. Unlike Tyler, Jefferson and Washington, though, Polk wasn’t torn with ambiguity over the morality of slavery. Nor did he design any plans for the eventual end of slavery. He accepted it as the natural order.
Also like many slave-owning presidents, Polk ordered the manumission of his slaves upon his death and the death of his wife. But Sarah Polk died in 1891, and the Civil War and the 13th amendment took care of the manumission.
Polk bought and traded slaves even while he was president. The salary of the chief executive being what it was, Polk supported the White House through his plantation (as did most other slave-owning presidents).
While Polk never went to the extremes of his immediate predecessor to defend slavery, or concoct a weird scenario whereby slavery would die out through diffusion over an expanded United States, Polk refused to let slavery guide his presidency. He believed, as he wrote in his diary, that slavery just would not work in the territories won from Mexico—he was largely correct—but he would also not sign on to Pennsylvania congressman Wilmot’s “Proviso” (legislation) that would outlaw slavery in those territories. However, Polk would not take any steps against slavery, either on principle or as a practical matter, at any time during his political career. For example, when he was Speaker of the House, Polk supported the gag rules to prevent the mere discussion of slavery in the House.
That action, of course, earned him the enmity of John Quincy Adams and gave new life to the aging New Yorker. Abolitionists viewed Polk as a villain because of 1) the gag rules, 2) as president he refused to sign the Wilmot Proviso and 3) he fought the Mexican War for what they believed was a pure land grab for the benefit of the slave power. More on that below.
After a stint in the state legislature, Polk came to Washington in 1824, the same year his political idol, Andrew Jackson, was “robbed” of the presidency through the “corrupt bargain” of John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay. Like all Jacksonians, Polk burned over the Adams-Clay victory, believing it a travesty that violated the will of the people. Polk deliberately became one of the primary obstructionists to the Adams administration, virtually serving as Jackson’s mouthpiece in the House and earning the sobriquet, Young Hickory.
Polk, like many a politician, did a complete one-eighty on some of his positions once he attained a higher office. As a new member of the House, he attacked President Adams’ seemingly outrageous abuses of executive power. But as a Jackson protégé and later, as Speaker of the House during the first two years of Martin Van Buren’s term, Polk was quick to defend executive power. When the shoe’s on the other foot…
Polk may have been dubbed Young Hickory, but in personality and temperament, he was nothing like his mentor. His chief political enemy, John Bell (a presidential candidate in 1860), who preceded and succeeded Polk as Speaker, repeatedly tried to goad Polk into a duel. Bell and his allies would heap amazingly harsh and insulting verbal vitriol on Polk—in the House chamber!—but Polk would never respond. He’d stay as cool as could be. Even Jackson, known for loving brawls, was impressed. Later, when Polk was president, Bell and the others apologized, and Polk accepted for he bore then no ill will. It’s probable that bearing that excruciating surgery when he was 11 gave him an endurance for such things. What Polk said about such men in private is another matter (see below).
Polk was different from Jackson in another way, too. Where Jackson was a fiery personality and an invigorating, if not brilliant, speaker, Polk was much more mechanical. John Quincy Adams recorded his partisan and conceited thoughts in his invaluable diary:
“Polk has no wit, no literature, no point of argument, no gracefulness of delivery, no elegance of language, no philosophy, no pathos, no felicitous impromptus; nothing that can constitute an orator but confidence, fluency and labor.” (Seigenthalor, p.53.) Seigenthalor goes on to say that “He was better than that, but confidence, fluency and labor were enough.”In the meantime, Polk, as Speaker, took the unprecedented step of aligning his priorities with those of President Van Buren’s, but to little avail. The Panic of 1837, brought on in large part by the Jackson-Biddle bank war, was crushing the country. Rather than risk losing the Speaker election, Polk left the house in 1839 and went back to Tennessee, where he narrowly won the governorship from the Whigs who were taking over the state.
Old Hickory greatly approved, and approved of Polk, too.
Stumbles and the dark-horse candidate
But all was not well for Democrats, because 1840 proved to be the year of the Whig. Polk’s real reason for wanting the Tennessee state house was to become vice president, and then president, but Van Buren didn’t select him. Van Buren got whipped, anyway. And soon so did Polk, losing the governorship by a narrow margin during the next election.
Polk tried to regain the governor’s mansion a few years later, but he lost by an even wider margin. Henry Clay’s Whigs seemed to be on the ascendancy, and Young Hickory, once seen as the protégé of Jackson, seemed to be politically dead.
After all, he couldn’t even win in his own state any more.
He went to the 1844 Democratic party convention (one of the first-ever conventions) where Martin Van Buren was looking to make a comeback. President John Tyler was running without a real party and held his own convention for his short-lived candidacy, and the formidable Henry Clay, who believed the third time would be the charm, was going to be the Whig standard bearer. Tyler soon bowed out when it seemed he’d never have a chance. And Polk would have to be content with being a vice president, if anything at all (he instructed his supporters to back Van Buren, initially). But then Van Buren and Clay simultaneously and literally committed one of the biggest miscalculations ever in American presidential politics.
It’s always fascinating to consider where presidents and candidates go horribly and irretrievably wrong. Sometimes it’s a series of gaffs, as happened with John Kerry, who started things off with “I voted for it before I voted against it.” Sometimes it’s a promise famously broken, such as George H.W. Bush’s “Read my lips: No new taxes.” Sometimes it’s a cover-up that’s worse than the actual crime, a la Richard Nixon. Sometimes it’s a “Yearrrrrgh!” hollered after a poor primary showing.
In 1844, Democratic kingpin and former president Martin van Buren and the powerful Whig Henry Clay had come to an understanding that to make Texas an issue of the election would be to make slavery the issue, and neither wanted that. Van Buren never publicly disclosed his position on slavery because of his careful party-building and Clay himself was a slave owner. So, the two men, often bitter political enemies, issued public proclamations on the same day in April 1844 against the immediate annexation of Texas. They knew most of the public wanted Texas, but they believed the public would bow to their superior knowledge of the situation and let them handle matters. But they were wrong.
The public wanted Texas now, because of the Alamo, because of the 100,000 Texans whom were related to people all over America, and because of feelings that Texas belonged to America, not Mexico, England or anyone else.
Support for both leading candidates dropped.
Van Buren had a lock on the nomination that spring but after his proclamation came away with nothing. The pro-annexation Polk, who just that spring was politically dead, suddenly found himself in the running for president on the Democratic ticket as the first-ever dark-horse candidate. It wasn’t quite like the Lord calling Lazarus from the grave, but with brilliant convention wheeling and dealing by his allies, Polk overtook Van Buren and won on the ninth ballot.
Clay, meanwhile, came off sounding like a 19th century John Kerry when he twice tried to explain his position on Texas and slavery to an Alabama newspaper. He even believed that the public would elect him, the senior statesman, over the inexperienced Polk because, well, because he was Henry Clay.
Newly invigorated, Polk used the Texas issue to win the election over Clay 170 to 103 votes in the electoral college and by 38,000 popular votes. Jackson’s protégé sealed the presidential ambitions of Clay for good, as he never ran again.
The diary and the solo president
The dark horse, however, quickly established himself as his own man, beholden to no one—not Van Buren, who despite losing the nomination nevertheless secured the New York vote for the Tennessee slave owner, and not even Jackson. Declaring his intention to serve only one term, Polk dismissed the advise of allies and friends and appointed whomever he wished to cabinet and other posts. He quickly burned a lot of bridges, and even without the amazing successes of his administration, it is questionable whether he would have been re-nominated.
There’s a very good reason for it, and Polk left us a multi-volume testimony as to why.
Outwardly, Polk seemed a controlled man—even colorless. But inwardly, he was much different. If you think that Richard Nixon was the most paranoid man to reside in the White House, then you don’t know James K. Polk. When Polk set up his cabinet, he deliberately chose men that pledged they would not seek the White House—and also men he could control. The only one to break the pledge was the secretary of state, Pennsylvanian James Buchanan (which raises the question of why Polk didn’t get rid of him, but part of the answer lays with the fact that Polk could control Buchanan).
Polk was not really a likable man, which made his lovely wife, Sarah, all the more useful as White House hostess. She was charming and friendly to all, and a skillful diplomat to boot. Polk, on the other hand, was formal and calmly pleasant. But in his diary, he was vicious, partisan, paranoid and treated anyone who was not 100 percent on his side as an enemy.
Polk’s presidential diary, which he began in August 1845, makes the White House tapes of Kennedy, Johnson and even Nixon tame by comparison. Even John Quincy Adams’ celebrated diary is not as highly charged as this. Polk would be at ease in person with someone he believed slighted him, but that night would rip him to shreds in his diary. Even long-time allies fell victim to his pen if they weren’t pure in his eyes. Democrats who cooperated with Whigs—sometimes even to pass his own legislation!—became “traitors.”
Whigs, of course, were unceasingly savaged—even Generals Taylor and Scott, his brilliant commanders during the Mexican War. They never lost a battle, and with inferior numbers delivered victory. Because of their crime of being Whigs, Polk never gave them a single word of praise in his diary.
That’s not to say that the vitriol wasn’t one-sided. Polk was savaged by his enemies as well, even in his own party. But Polk’s verbal vitriol appears only in his diary. He had different ways of snubbing people in public.
Was Polk unbalanced? A megalomaniac? Maybe. He believed he could run the government all by himself, and crowed about it to his diary when he hadn’t held a cabinet meeting for five months.
The four great goals
President James K. Polk laid out four ambitious goals for his presidency, as recorded by Treasury Secretary George Bancroft, and he achieved three early and the fourth during his last year in office. Three of the four have had a lasting and profound effect on the United States, which, again, makes the largely forgotten status of Polk so baffling.
The four great goals were (in no particular order):
- re-establishment of an independent treasury,
- reduction of tariffs,
- settle the Oregon boundary dispute with Great Britain, and
- purchase California from Mexico.
Martin Van Buren had sought to establish a treasury as one of his solutions to the Panic of 1837. Congress finally made it law in 1840, but it died in 1841. Polk believed it a good idea, and revived it. He changed it’s name, but the concept was the same: take federal deposits out of private banks—just as Jackson had done with the now-defunct Second Bank of the United States—and place them in an independent treasury. The treasury would be wholly responsible to the government and, even though the secretary would be a political appointee, the body itself would be independent and not subject t o political whims.
Congress easily passed Polk’s treasury bill, and his version of a treasury lasted unmolested until the creation of the Federal Reserve in 1913. Score one.
Tariffs were already an old fight in politics, and they would be fought over into the 20th century until the establishment of the income tax. Polk’s goal here was to reduce the latest tariff, which northern industrialists and Democrats (and Whigs) favored, and southern Democrats disdained. It was a familiar argument.
Polk has dissembled on the tariff question during the campaign, but now he put forth a tariff reduction bill that made northerners howl because, Polk sneered, it cut their profits. Nevertheless, the bill barely passed the Senate, with Vice President Dallas casting the tie-breaker. Score two.
Our final northern boundary dispute with Great Britain occurred during Polk’s term, and if the Court of St. James thought John Tyler was something of a hothead, they were in for a surprise with the next U.S. president.
The Tyler administration had proposed that the joint occupation of the Oregon territory—which included present-day Oregon, Washington, Idaho and parts of Montana and Wyoming—be ended with America taking everything south of 49 degrees, which is the present day border. Polk’s secretary of state, James Buchanan, continued with the proposal, but Britain’s ambassador haughtily rejected it, saying the dividing line should be at the present-day Washington-Oregon border.
An angered Polk demanded that the British acquiesce to a much different border, at the fifty-fourth parallel, or by Gd there would be war. Fifty-four forty or fight! became the new rallying cry. (It’s a mistake to say that “fifty-four forty or fight!” was a campaign slogan; it wasn’t.)
But England did not want war, and cooler heads prevailed. Eventually, the forty-ninth parallel became the border—the original Tyler administration proposal—and we’ve been at peace ever since. Score three.
President Polk wanted California, and believed that the only way to secure the United States permanently from the possibility of foreign aggression, that is, from England or France, was to be anchored firmly from coast to coast. Polk truly had no intention of ripping California from Mexico. He wanted to buy it outright. But war with Mexico over Texas intervened, and Polk would win California by a meager force of arms in that direction—but he would still make remittance to Mexico for California (and a lot more land to boot). Score four—but only after two years of war.
I don’t want—or have the space—to give a blow-by-blow account of the Mexican War here (also because some of the exploits will come up in the next entry, on President Zachary Taylor). Instead, I’ll give a brief overview. But if you are unfamiliar with what the Marines sing about when they invoke “the Halls of Montezuma,” you should read John D. Eisenhower’s So Far From God: The U.S. War with Mexico, 1846-1848. It remains the best account of that war, and is in fact one of the best books on American history.
Here’s a quick summary: Gen. Zachary Taylor’s Army of Observation, sent to the Gulf Coast by President Tyler late in his term, moved to Texas under Polk’s orders. Taylor was to wait at the Rio Grande—in the supposed disputed territory claimed by both Mexico and Texas/America. Mexican forces attacked Taylor first on American soil, and the game was on. (This was, if you will, the 19th century version of the Gulf of Tonkin incident.)
Taylor responded and won at Palo Alto and a bigger victory at Resaca de la Palma in May 1846. Polk asked for and received a declaration of war a few days later on May 13. Taylor advanced further and won a bitter battle at Monterrey. American forces under Phil Kearny and others moved on the Southwest and California, while a Naval force secured two California ports. California and the southwest were secure by 1847. Polk decided a campaign against Mexico City was in order, and he placed Commander-in-Chief Winfield Scott in command. Scott stripped Taylor’s command, and landed at Vera Cruz in March 1847. Meanwhile, the depleted Taylor left Monterrey against orders and won a final smashing victory at Buena Vista in February (which, not coincidentally, placed him on the road to the White House). Scott advanced from the coast and won hard-fought battles at Cerro Gordo, Molino del Ray, Churubusco and Chapultepec. He finally took Mexico City in September.
American forces won almost every single battle, even though they were outnumbered on nearly every field. A peace was finally arranged. Under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the American-Mexican border was secured at the Rio Grande, and America got California, and what would become most of New Mexico and Arizona, as well as Nevada and Utah, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming, a total of 500,000 square miles (not counting Texas). The rest of New Mexico and Arizona would be added in 1853 with the Gasden Purchase. In exchange, Mexico received $15 million. The 8,000 Mexican families now in U.S. territory had the choice whether to stay or return to Mexico. Most stayed.
Roughly 13,000 American soldiers died during the war, most from disease (especially yellow fever) or other non-combat causes. About 1,700 were killed in combat. Mexican casualties are estimated at approximately 25,000.
Side note: The Mexican War is often overlooked, just as Korea is overshadowed by World War II and Vietnam, or treated as a “rehearsal” for the Civil War, as many of the major figures in that later conflict got their field training in this war. But the Mexican War was a major event in its own right, a demarcation line in the history of the nation. However, because the war wrapped up in fine fashion, and the controversies were overshadowed in a few years by the larger issue of slavery and the excitement of the gold rush in the new territory, as well as the president’s death three months after his term ended, the war faded. And that’s a shame. But before that happened, there were some who weren’t going to let the war pass without a challenge, no matter how victorious.
Few modern American high school or college students fail to graduate without learning something of Henry David Thoreau and his “civil disobedience.” The Massachusetts author, protesting the Mexican War, refused to pay a tax; so, he spent a night in jail. Courage! (Other dissenters included Ulysses S. Grant, who was quite unknown at the time. Second Lieutenant Grant considered the war the greatest evil perpetuated by a larger nation upon a smaller one, but as he was in the army and a recent West Point graduate, he did his duty and served well in the field.)
But far more demonstrative—and widely known—were the fights in Congress and the attacks in the abolitionist press against the war. During the first year of the war, nearly everyone supported the war, and there was a massive outpouring of goodwill and volunteer enlistments in the army. Congress voted an overwhelming declaration of war, with Whig support.
But despite the victories and the march on and capture of Mexico City, the public began to sour on the war, especially as the peace negotiations dragged on into 1848. Whigs, who gained control of Congress in 1846, turned against the war. Many Whigs claimed the war was nothing more than a war of aggression for land. Some Whigs, led in part by Whig Congressman Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, challenged the official version of event that precipitated the shooting war. The Polk administration claimed Mexican soldiers attacked an American patrol on American soil; Lincoln and other Whigs now claimed that the attack happened in the disputed territory, where Taylor was not supposed to be. Who was right?
Technically, Polk was, because according to the treaty that ended the Texas war for independence, Texas’ southern border was the Rio Grande, not the Nueces, 150 miles to the north. But the Mexican government didn’t recognize that treaty as they claimed General Santa Ana had signed it under duress after San Jacinto.
At war’s end, a Congressional resolution was passed by the Whig majority praising Gen. Taylor for his service in “a war unnecessarily and unconstitutionally begun by the President of the United States.” Congressman Lincoln would have a hard time shaking those words 12 years later.
Regardless, the Whig charge that the war was unconstitutional is completely wrong, and is as laughable as the Democrats’ complaints today against the Iraq war. In fact, the Democrats of today are acting exactly the same as the Whigs of the 1840s: voting overwhelmingly voted for the war when it was popular, then turning against it when its popularity has waned.
Whether it was a necessary war, however, is another thing entirely. Perhaps Polk would have even agreed with the Whigs had there not been such enmity between them. Polk, actually, really didn’t want to fight a war with Mexico. He wanted the land, and he wanted to keep Texas, and he would have gladly paid Mexico for the western lands.
But when Mexico refused, Polk readily gave them war. Polk actually fought what he considered a limited war with Mexico. At first, Polk deliberatively limited operations to the American Southwest. But he underestimated the Mexican desire to fight and Mexican anger against America. He then ordered the Mexico City campaign, which “conquered” Mexico.
Many Democrats actually urged Polk to take all of Mexico—white man’s burden again; get poor Mexico under America’s protective wing. But Polk demurred, and had no intention of holding what Scott had so brilliantly captured. After the peace was signed and money exchanged, the new borders were drawn. And the United States finally stretched unbroken from coast to coast.
No second term
Polk had no love for his successor: Zachary Taylor, the brilliant general whom Polk believed was incompetent, untalented and a fool.
Had Polk even wanted a second term, he wouldn’t have lived to enjoy it. He died on June 15, three months after leaving office.
Perhaps his sour personality weighed him down as much as the office did. Or perhaps it was his insistence on doing everything himself. Regardless, Polk’s often shaky health finally caught him at age 53.
As noted above, James K. Polk was arguably the most successful president ever, because he achieved every one of his goals. I draw the line, though, at calling him one of the greatest. I used to agree with Harry Truman’s assessment. But after investigating him in-depth, I’m starting to wonder.
Polk could often be a mean, vindictive man. A bully, if you will. A man incapable of giving praise to anyone who didn’t agree with him. A man so stuck on himself and his own abilities and ambitions that he rode roughshod over anyone who got in his way. Is that really a sign of greatness?
There’s no doubt that James K. Polk looms large over this nation: the Mexican War, 11 new states and a treasury system that lasted almost 70 years. Those are incredible accomplishments.
He was “great” in terms of his accomplishments, but often—but not always—small in terms of his character.
(Which brings up a conundrum for another time: you can be great on character but lousy on accomplishments; you can be great on accomplishments and lousy on character; you can be lousy on both; but it is a truly exceptional president who is great on both.)
Final assessment: Highly successful, but mixed on popularity.
The Polk entry in the American Presidents Series, written by John Seigenthaler, is quite a good summary. (Although he describes John Tyler’s term as “listless,” which I found it to be anything but.)
Also interesting for exploring Polk’s character is William Dusinberre’s Slavemaster President: The Double Career of James Polk (2003).
You can also check out The Diary of James K. Polk During His Presidency, 1845-1849.
John D. Eisenhower expertly chronicles America’s first foreign “excursion” in the highly readable and entertaining So Far from God: The U.S. War with Mexico, 1846-1848. The title refers to a statement made by the Mexican president in 1877: “Poor Mexico; So far from God, so close to the United States.”
A more classical entry, but no less readable, is the Pulitzer Prize-winner The Year of Decision: 1846, by Bernard DeVoto, which covers much more than the Mexican War.
All images are public domain and found in the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division unless otherwise noted.
1. Reproduction of an 1849 Brady daguerreotype taken while Polk was still president
2. Portrait of young Polk
3. A rather ridiculous campaign card of Polk which stretches more than the imagination, and tries to make Young Hickory look like Old Hickory
4. View of crowd with umbrellas, in front of platform on east portico of U.S. Capitol, where Chief Justice Roger B. Taney administers the oath of office to James K. Polk. Originally published in The Illustrated London News, April 19, 1845.
5. Sarah Polk in a lithograph published by N. Currier
6. Polk’s cabinet, minus Buchanan. Polk sits second from the right. This is the first-ever photo taken of a president with his cabinet. Photo on White House web site, copyright belongs to James K. Polk Memorial Association, Columbia, Tennessee. (I’m not sure of the rights here; I may have to remove this photo and link to it instead.)
7. Photograph of the White House taken in 1846
8. Official White House portrait of James K. Polk, 11th president of the United States (White House Historical Association)
9. Battle of Buena Vista during the Mexican-American War, a painting by Carl Nebel, published in the 1851 book The War Between the United States and Mexico, Illustrated
10. Battle of Churubusco, during the Mexican-American War, a painting by Carl Nebel, published in the 1851 book The War Between the United States and Mexico, Illustrated. Both this and the previous paint are startling images for the time.
11. Soon-to-be famed photographer Matthew Brady took this daguerreotype of President Polk in February 1849, one month before the end of his presidency and four months before the end of his life.