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james k. polk

22 july 2008

James K. Polk, upon his "dark horse" nomination for President in 1844, pledged to serve only one term. He drew up a list of things that he wanted to get done in that one term: lower the tariff, establish a national treasury system for government deposits, seize or otherwise acquire Oregon from the British, and seize or otherwise acquire California from the Mexicans. He accomplished all four goals, left office on schedule, and promptly died. They don't make 'em like that anymore.

Actually, of course, they never made 'em like that. Polk was unique. Every other American President has had to trim and compromise his agenda, or often wander into completely unforeseen agendas. Virtually every other President has clung to office as long as possible. Had Polk not died, it's true that there's no telling whether he'd have become an eminence grise in American politics, like the predecessors who long survived him (J.Q. Adams, Van Buren, Tyler). He'd spent his whole brief lifetime in politics, and such addictions are not easily beaten. But Polk had an iron will, annealed by affliction in his youth. (As a young adult, Polk underwent a perineal lithotomy – without anaesthetic.) If he said he was leaving Washington for good, it's not likely he was coming back.

I hadn't had a very high regard for Polk before reading John Seigenthaler's entry in the Times Books American Presidents series. Polk was the great imperialist among American Presidents, and his was an imperialism, despite his professed agnosticism on the slavery question, that was very much in the service of the expansion of slavery. Polk's undeniable effectiveness always left me with the question: "effectiveness to what good end?"

Seigenthaler doesn't really have an answer for that. To no good end, it seems, except the dismemberment of Mexico and the projection of American imperial power onto the Pacific coast. But Polk had some interesting and even admirable qualities if you look past his evil achievements. And any man who made an enemy of John C. Calhoun and other fire-eating promoters of slavery had to be doing something right, even if only in the rather forgiving relativism of history.

Polk won that enmity simply by advocating popular sovereignty, the panacea for the slavery question that would later be so appealing to Stephen A. Douglas and other Union Democrats. He won the enmity of Northern "conscience" thinkers like Henry David Thoreau by himself owning slaves and, as Speaker of the House before his Presidency, in enforcing the notorious "gag rule" that prevented even the discussion of abolitionist petitions. On the whole, I don't think in this case that infuriating both sides in the debate is necessarily a sign that you're doing something right. One can imagine a Polk who actively resisted a land grab, or used his influence in the South to restrain the forces of the slave power instead of abetting them. But in Seigenthaler's persuasive interpretation, Polk is hardly the beast I'd long considered him to be.

So what's to like? Polk was a workaholic who took public service very, very seriously. Though dragged to church often by his wife Sarah, he was a lifelong agnostic who resisted mixing political and religious rhetoric. Insulated by his decision to forego a second term, he made lots of tough calls without having to curry favor with the many chronic logrollers of Washington. He was one of Harry Truman's favorite precursors, and though it's a lot easier to like Truman's principles, one can see the influence of Polk on the way that Truman went about getting those principles translated into results.

Seigenthaler, John. James K. Polk. New York: Times Books, 2004.