President’s Day originated as a compromise between those who wanted to celebrate Lincoln’s Birthday and Washington’s Birthday in the same month, a practice which took too many working days out of what’s already the shortest month of the year. So a new holiday was born in the 1970s, which ended up honoring all of the presidents, not just the two most famous ones born in the month of February. So now we can honor not just the well remembered presidents who have their faces immortalized on giant rock formations, but also the less familiar figures who played vital roles in the growth of the nation, some of whom may be nearly forgotten, but few of whom are more worth remembering than our 11th President, James Knox Polk.
Most people are only marginally aware of the career of James K. Polk. Even in his own time he was relatively little known, standing in the shadow of the giant figures of the 1820s and 1830s like Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson and Daniel Webster. He was born in North Carolina in 1795, moved to Tennessee where he practiced law, served in the state legislature and as governor, moved on to represent his state in Congress and eventually became Speaker of the House of Representatives.
Polk was a handsome, fussy and sometimes obsessive man. He was a compulsive journal and letter writer with extraordinary attention to detail. He once wrote a brief treatise to an aspiring politician on the technique of shaking hands in order to avoid crushing grips while still shaking in a forceful way:
When I observed a strong man approaching, I generally took advantage of him by being a little quicker than he was and seizing him by the tip of his fingers, giving him a hearty shake, and thus preventing him from getting a full grip upon me.
Despite his political experience he was relatively unknown to the public when an opportunity arose for him to run for the presidency in 1844 in the aftermath of the disastrous Harrison/Tyler presidency. The people were ready for change, and Polk who was then Governor of Tennessee, offered himself as a dark horse candidate, a political outsider with experience and a link to the legacy of his old friend Andrew Jackson and the roots of the Democratic party.
In his campaign Polk made a unique pledge. He declared that he had four objectives as president and that he would accomplish all of them in one four year term and then not seek reelection. His four goals were to lower the tariff, restore the treasury without creating a bank, put an end to the federal role in internal improvements, and obtain not only Texas, but also Oregon and California as new territory for the nation. His plans embodied the idea of Manifest Destiny – that the United States should unite the two coasts of North America and all the territory between in a single, contiguous nation.
After winning the election Polk set directly to work to achieve his stated objectives and did exactly as promised. This required a unique and aggressive exercise of executive power, which Polk was able to manage despite having declared himself an effective ‘lame duck’ from the moment he was elected.
Andrew Jackson was one of the first presidents accused of overstepping the appropriate boundaries of executive power, but his combination of political inexperience and emotionalism often reduced his effectiveness as a leader. Polk was his protege – Young Hickory to his Old Hickory – and he combined Jackson’s stubborn ruthlessness with a political savvy and a sense of destiny which made him devastatingly effective. No president before or since has wielded as much executive power as effectively as Polk did or achieved as much in one four-year term.
Polk defined what the role of the chief executive ought to be. He was an autocratic bastard who knew what needed to be done, was willing to go to any extreme to achieve his goals, and left it to Congress, the Army, the diplomats and the courts to sort out the nuances and clean up the wreckage he left in his wake. Unlike Jackson his policy decisions were sound and unassailable and resulted in vital, dramatic successes for the still growing nation.
Right after taking office, Polk notified the British that he wanted the Oregon boundary to be set at at the 49th parallel. Richard Pakenham, the British minister, rejected this idea. Polk asked congress for permission to violate the joint occupation treaty of 1818 and said, “The Only way to treat John Bull is to look him straight in the eye.” Congress approved, so Polk told the British he planned to end joint occupation unilaterally, and the British broke down and decided to compromise and give Polk the 49th parallel as a border – not a surprising choice as there were 5000 Americans living in Oregon an only 750 British citizens there.
In 1846 Polk resurrected the Independent Treasury which had been passed under Van Buren but had been defunded by Tyler who was among those who wanted to bring back the National Bank. He also totally restructured the tariff system to place high tariffs on luxury goods, but lower the overall rate to hold down consumer prices, a policy which was very positively received in most of the country. During his administration Polk also vetoed a whole series of bills intended to fund various internal improvement programs, so effectively discouraging federal spending that no new internal improvement bills were proposed in Congress until 1854.
To make sure that Texas was secure, Polk then decided to provoke a war with Mexico which had been very uncooperative when previous presidents had tried to negotiate for Texas independence. Polk sent General Zachary Taylor and 1500 troops to Texas to fortify the border against a hypothetical Mexican invasion. However the acknowledged border was the Nueces River and Polk sent Taylor to fortify the border at the Rio Grande, 150 miles inside Mexican territory, plus Taylor began sending raiding parties even farther into Mexico to maximize the irritation.
This naturally provoked a Mexican response and the ensuing war was brief, bloody and decisive, leaving General Taylor and General Winfield Scott sitting in Mexico City by 1847 with the Mexican government in exile. The negotiations with Mexico became a legendary test of wills. Polk wanted to keep all the nice parts of Mexico – California, Texas and the border lands inbetween – and give them back the desolate areas teeming with impoverished peons. The Mexicans didn’t like negotiating on that basis, so Polk’s ambassador kept offering them less and less money for the land the US had already seized, until fear of being displaced by a puppet government made them settle for half of what Polk had original offered them, giving up all of Texas north of the Rio Grande, plus New Mexico and California as well. It was the largest US land acquisition since the Louisiana Purchase.
With the successful conclusion of the Mexican War, Polk had done all he had set out to do. His term was up, and true to his word, he was the first US President to voluntarily leave the office after only one term, even though he could easily have won his party’s nomination and reelection. Apparently he had judged his durability just about right, because he dropped dead before the year was out.
Polk left behind a legacy you can’t ignore when you look at a map of the United States, because it was his work which established the boundaries of the nation pretty much as we know it today. Some of his other accomplishments were less permanent, though I think we could take a lesson from them. Keeping the vast money associated with internal improvement programs out of the hands of the federal government could only have changed our history for the better. Look at the bloated deficits and corruption which issue from the federal funding of roads and bridges and levees and dams and crop yields and a thousand other earmarks in every budget. Every one of these jobs could be done better and more economically and with far less corruption on the state and local level with minimal federal oversight. Polk realized this over 150 years ago when the system was much less extensive and much less exploited than it is today.
I wonder how a President with the strength of character of James K. Polk would deal with the domestic and international challenges which our nation faces today. Polk was not one to launch a half-hearted war or quibble over the legal nuances of necessary presidential actions or give in to the pressure of the herd mentality and political blackmail. He knew what was best for the nation and acted on his principles and the authority of his office.
Polk understood that it is the President’s job to be an autocrat and to provide determined leadership and push the country in the right direction. Individual initiative at the top means that essential actions can be taken without waiting to hear from lawyers and judges and legislators. Congress and the courts can come along after the fact and straighten things out and check any excesses, but the President needs to have the autonomy to take act freely with minimal accountability in response to a crisis. That’s why we have an executive and not just a bunch of legislators and bureaucrats running the country.
Presidents need to lead, and the only judgement they should have to worry about is that of history. Although he’s not on Mount Rushmore, history has judged Polk well. Every poll of historians has put him in the top dozen presidents, right behind a top ten who are distinguished by sharing one quality with Polk. They were all willing to rule as autocrats in order to do what they thought was right, no matter what Congress, the courts or even the public said and no matter the risks to their own legacy. They knew that the exercise of power is not the same as the acquisition of power and that even if they overstepped the bounds of the office, the Constitution and the Republic would adapt and survive.