Saturday, December 29, 2012


It was supposed to be another icky, stormy day today, and other than laundry I really didn't have that much that absolutely need to be done.  The biography of Millard Fillmore that I just finished made me aware of what I had forgotten about some of his predecessors in office, particularly James K. Polk, president #11.  So I decided to rewind history a little and re-read my biography of Polk before moving on.  As it turned out, we got very little of the system that is now hammering New England with a nor'easter.  I spent the day on the sofa next to the Christmas tree reading anyway.

Polk is another president who contributed enormously but is largely ignored.  The diaries he meticulously kept during his presidential term are available, but at $130 for the set and only covering the period of his administration they weren't a good introductory option.  Maybe if I ever have one of those Kindle/Nook thingies I'll read them.  Today was spent on the same biography I read a year of so ago - a 150 page, rather condensed biography from the American Presidents series.

Polk was a Tennessee protege of Andrew Jackson - "Young Hickory" to Jackson's "Old Hickory", and he was the first "dark horse" candidate to emerge from a presidential nominating convention.  Ferociously political, considered dour and lacking in social skills, he declared that he would run for one term and one term only, and he kept his promise.  He entered the presidency with a declaration that he had four goals to achieve in the four years of his term:

1) Obtain full control of Oregon (which covered what is now both Oregon and Washington) from the English with whom we were sharing it.

2)  Obtain California from Mexico, whose government was still unhappy about Texas.

3) End financial control of federal funds by private banks by re-creating President Martin Van Buren's independent treasury.

4)  Lower tariffs, which were placing heavy burdens on  the non-industrial, agrarian areas of the U.S.

He accomplished all four between 1845 and 1849, changing the geography and economy of the country profoundly.  Yet because of his flawed and quirky personality, his accomplishments are barely acknowledged.  In the end, the author concludes:
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., has compared Polk's standing among presidents to that of Harry Truman:  "Neither Polk nor Truman was one of those creative presidents who make the nation look at things in a new way...But both had the intelligence and courage to accept the challenge of history.  History might have broken them, as it broke Buchanon and Hoover.  Instead it forced them, not into personal greatness, but into the performance of great things.
He did great things. That is a powerful epitaph.


  1. Polk's birthplace in in Pineville, NC, about a mile south from where I work. No original buildings, but they have a visitor's center, a two-story log "mansion," and some outbuildings. About ten miles south of Polk's birthplace, just over the border in South Carolina, is Andrew Jackson State Park, which marks the area where Jackson was born (the specific site is unknown).

    1. And it's interesting that Jackson's birthplace is in South Carolina since he threatened to send troops there during the Nullification Crisis of 1833. South Carolina was perpetually a problem...

  2. Ever read Walter Russell Mead's Spectrum Theory of US Foreign policy? It's named after prominent figures in US history, and Jackson was one of these:

    His original article is here:

    I consider myself a Jacksonian. Most gun owners seem to be, for some reason. *grins*

    1. No, I haven't, thanks for the link.

      Interesting that the term "Jacksonian Democrat" means minimal federal government intrusion but these days "Democrat" means "We will run every aspect of your life because you are too stupid and helpless to do it yourself."

  3. As much U.S. history as I read, I somehow missed this one. Thank you for bringing it to our attention.

    1. And he presided over the Mexican-American War, which was the training ground of many of the officers who would later gain fame during the Civil War.