The first I remember hearing about James K. Polk was in my high school US history class. He was described as the greatest president you’ve never heard of, and probably the only president to achieve every goal he set for his administration. Now, I don’t typically speak very highly of my high school history classes (the teacher was given a relatively small canvas on which to paint the picture of history, and he painted with the broadest of brushes), but in this one instance, at least, I feel like my education was adequately served.
Whether or not he was the greatest president you’ve never heard of, it’s unquestionable that he was the greatest president between Monroe/Madison and Lincoln. And I kind of see him as the 19th century’s Harry Truman. Both had fairly inauspicious (though moderately successful) careers prior to becoming president, and neither were seen as particularly amazing by their contemporaries. But while both have gone on to be generally respected, Polk still seems to be brushed aside and somewhat forgotten.
That may be because his stance on the most important issue of his day – slavery – was relative indifference. In his diary (which may have been written for the sake of posterity, and therefore wouldn’t be entirely reliable) Polk dismisses the idea that slavery should extend into the newly won territories from the Mexican-American War, but his actual policy was to extend the line of the Missouri Compromise westward, thereby keeping the status quo. Though he was a slaveholder his entire life (and bought slaves after becoming president), he wrote in his will that his slaves should be freed after his wife’s death. Like many of his era, he probably knew that slavery was wrong, but was unwilling (and/or incapable) of doing anything about it. For all the success of his presidency, the stain of slavery will forever shadow him. I therefore am inclined to mark his relative anonymity up to an understandable reticence to praise someone who at least partly owed his success and fortune to the labor of human beings whom he owned.
Perhaps his greatest achievement was the opening of the west for the expansion of Manifest Destiny. He brought Texas into the Union (though, his predecessor John Tyler, was responsible for much of the legwork), and settled the question of the Oregon Territory (the borders of which were disputed with Great Britain). But his largest acquisition was of the American Southwest (California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and parts of Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming) following victory in the Mexican-American War. This is a tricky thing to celebrate. It was undoubtedly great for the nation (particularly California), but they can’t be discussed without at least mentioning the continued assault on American Indian tribes, and destruction of their culture. As a protegee of Andrew Jackson (Polk was often called “Young Hickory” to his predecessor’s “Old Hickory”), the continuation of the indifference to tribal claims can not be ignored.
He promised to serve only on term in office, which wasn’t entirely unheard of in the 19th century, though it seems sacrilegious today. I can’t even imagine a modern politician making such a promise. It was this fact, perhaps, that has always fascinated me about James Polk. How do you willing step away from the power of the presidency after clearly being so adept at the job? He was able to carefully maneuver various warring factions enough to achieve all of his political goals. He grew the nation by a third, stabilized the US banking system (which would’ve been unthinkable even a decade prior), and achieved, perhaps, the greatest military success in US history up to that point.
For a president who achieved so much, the dearth of biographies is a little disappointing. This book, however, is a great place to start for those wishing to more fully understand not only the 11th president of the United States, but the era that he was so integral to shaping.