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.