The Best President You’ve Never Heard Of

I doubt if many Americans could name even one American president from the nineteenth century, except for Abraham Lincoln. Thomas Jefferson was the first president of the nineteenth century, but he is better known for being the writer of the Declaration of Independence and in these days of educational malpractice for owning slaves. Andrew Jackson might also be remembered, if only because he appears on the twenty-dollar bill. Grover Cleveland still has his moment of fame for being the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms. I doubt many Americans would even recognize names like John Tyler, Franklin Pierce, Chester A. Arthur, Benjamin Harrison.

This historical ignorance may be forgivable when you consider that the presidency did not play so prominent a role in the nation’s affairs as it has in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. These were the days in which the president was simply the chief executive rather than the elected monarch he is today. Presidents simply didn’t do as much as they do nowadays. Still, the nineteenth-century presidents were not simply do-nothing presidents. Some of these presidents accomplished a great deal during their terms in office. A few of these presidents could be counted among the worst, including the worst president ever. Others could be counted among the best American presidents. James K. Polk was one of these. He was the best president you have never heard of.

James K. Polk

So who was James K. Polk? That was the question many people were asking when the Democrats nominated Polk as their candidate in 1844. Polk was a dark horse who had seemingly come out of nowhere to secure the nomination as a compromise candidate after the convention was deadlocked between the supporters of Lewis Cass and Martin van Buren. Polk was not really that unknown, however. He actually had been active in national politics for some time being of Andrew Jackson, gaining the nickname “Young Hickory”, a reference to Jackson’s “Old Hickory.

Andrew Jackson

James Knox Polk was born on November 2, 1795, in Pineville, North Carolina. Growing up, James Polk adopted his mother’s stern Presbyterianism, becoming a hard, disciplined worker and a teetotaler his entire life. The Polk family moved to Tennesee in 1806 and it was in that state that Polk met his wife, Sarah Childress who he married in1824.

Sarah Childress Polk

He also began his political career as a Democrat who supported his fellow Tennesseean Andrew Jackson in the election of 1824. The two men developed a close friendship and Jackson supported Polk’s political career throughout his life.  Polk served as Representative from Tennessee from 1825 until 1839, becoming the chairman of the influential House Ways and Means Committee from 1833 to 1835 and Speaker of the House from 1835 to 1839. He went on to serve as Governor of Tennessee from 1839 to 1841. Polk was not, then a complete unknown, yet he did not have the resume that a potential president was expected to have. Previous presidents had served as Vice-President, Secretary of State,  Many presidents have since previously served as governors but so far no other Speaker of the House has become president. Polk went on to win the election of 1844, running against the much better known Whig candidate, Senator Henry Clay. It was a hard-fought and bitter election, but Polk won by a narrow margin, campaigning on a platform of manifest destiny and national expansion.

As president, James K. Polk accomplished more in his single term than many presidents have in two terms. He was a tireless worker, overseeing the operations of the federal government himself, relying only on his wife and nephew to assist him. James K Polk had four goals as president; reestablish the independent treasury system established by Jackson and Van Buren and ended by the Whigs, reduce the tariffs, settle the border of the Oregon Territory, and resolve the border dispute with Mexico. Polk accomplished all four of these goals by the end of his term, presiding over a successful war with Mexico and expanding the boundaries of the United States across the continent from sea to sea.

The first two items on Polk’s agenda were policies long supported by the Democratic Party. The Whigs, representing the interests of north-eastern industrialists had enacted high tariffs to protect the emerging American industry from foreign competition. The Democrats, which tended to be strongest in the agricultural South and West favored lower tariffs to discourage foreign retaliatory tariffs against American agricultural exports. Accordingly, President Polk had his Treasury Secretary, Robert J. Walker, draft a lower and more consistent set of tariff rates which narrowly passed Congress.

The Democrats also opposed any creation of the sort of central bank that the Whigs supported. Polk had assisted his mentor, Andrew Jackson in killing the Second Bank of the United States, and as president, Polk reestablished the Independent Treasury system that Jackson and Martin Van Buren had favored. In Polk’s system, the U. S. Treasury Department kept the public acted as a sort of central bank, keeping the federal revenues in its own facilities and managing the money supply. Polk’s Independent Treasury system lasted, with modifications until the creation of the Federal Reserve in 1913.

President Polk’s foreign policy was less partisan than his domestic policies. A policy of national expansion was popular throughout the United States and both parties backed the doctrine that it was the manifest destiny of the United States to spread from sea to sea. At the time of Polk’s accession to the presidency, the borders of the United States with Great Britain in the Pacific Northwest and Mexico in the southwest were not clearly defined. President Polk promised to resolve the disputes with both nations, by war if necessary.

The Oregon Territory in the Northwest extended north to the line of latitude 54º40′. Both the United States and Great Britain claimed the territory, but since it was originally sparsely settled, except by the Indians who didn’t count, neither side had pressed its claim and the territory was jointly administered since the Treaty of 1818. As the territory was settled, this arrangement became untenable and it became obvious that the conflicting claims would have to be settled. Polk and the Democrats had campaigned on the slogan “54º40′ or fight!”, arguing that the entire Oregon Territory should go to the United States. If Britain was unwilling to cede its claim to the territory, then America should go to war. In fact, Polk had no intention of going to war with Britain. Relations with Mexico were rapidly deteriorating, making war increasingly likely, and Polk did not wish to fight two wars at the same time. For their part, the British did not want a war with the United States, and the two nations quickly agreed to divide the territory along the existing border between the United States and Canada at the 49th parallel in the Oregon Treaty.

54 40 or fight! Or not

President Polk would perhaps have preferred to resolve the disputes with Mexico over the boundaries of Texas and the Southwest with diplomacy offered to buy California and New Mexico, but the Mexicans, already humiliated by the annexation of Texas, were in no mood for negotiations. The ensuing Mexican War was Polk’s most controversial legacy and has been widely seen, then and since as an unwarranted act of aggression by the United States and attempt to expand slave territories. Whether or not Polk’s actions in provoking that was a subject for another post, but it cannot be denied that Polk proved to be a capable commander in chief appointing excellent commanding generals like Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott and prosecuting a successful war. In the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, America gained the Southwest, including the present-day states of California, Arizona, and New Mexico, bringing the United States of America to its present continental boundaries, except for the strip of land bought from Mexico in the Gadsden Purchase.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo

President Polk declined to run for reelection in 1848. He had promised to serve only one term and he had accomplished everything he had intended as president. James Polk died on June 15 at the age of 53, just three months after he had left the White House. The cause of death is generally given as cholera, but Polk had been exhausted from his tireless work as president, and the true cause of death was overwork.

A president who kept all his promises and accomplished all his goals we could use a president like James K Polk again. He doesn’t deserve to be one of the forgotten presidents.

 

The Election of 1844

Slavery was once again the issue that no one wanted to talk about during the presidential campaign of 1844. What people did want to talk about was the territorial expansion of the United States all the way to the West Coast. Manifest Destiny were the words on everyone’s lips, the destiny, nay duty, of the United States to take in as much of the North American continent as allowed by Divine Providence. This expansion could be accomplished in two areas. In the South, the expansionists wanted to annex the Republic of Texas, which had gained its independence from Mexico only a decade earlier and was eager to become a state of the Union. In the  North, there was the Oregon Territory with its disputed border with Great Britain’s Canadian territory. The more ardent expansionists wanted the United States to gain all of the Oregon territory under the slogan “54-40 or fight” referring to the latitude of the northernmost boundary of the territory and Russian Alaska.

800px-USA_Territorial_Growth_1820_alt

Although no one wanted to mention slavery in connection with the territorial expansion of the United States, in fact much of the impetus for expansion was due to the desire of the slave holding South to expand the territories open to slavery. The Missouri Compromise had restricted slavery to territories south of the latitude 36º 30′with the exception of the state of Missouri. Since most of the states that could be carved out of the territory gained with the Louisiana Purchase were North of this line, eventually the free states would outnumber the slave states, upsetting the careful balance that had been maintained between the number of free and slave states. Already the northern states with their greater population had more seats than the slave states in the House of Representatives. An imbalance in the Senate would give the North control of both houses of Congress. President John Tyler had submitted a treaty for the annexation of Texas in April 1844 but he was unable to get the two-thirds majority in the Senate that was needed for ratification, largely because because of opposition from anti-slavery Whigs. Tyler simply resubmitted the treaty as a joint resolution of Congress requiring a simply majority in both Houses, making annexation the major campaign in the election of 1844

There was no question of either party nominating the incumbent John Tyler for a second term. Although he had been a Whig as William Henry Harrison‘s running mate in the previous election, Tyler had been a Democrat before breaking with Andrew Jackson back in the 1830’s. Tyler had never really been a strict party man and while president he had managed to offend the leaders of both political parties. Tyler did make some effort towards building a third party of his supporters, but nothing came of it and he eventually agreed to drop out in favor of the Democratic nominee.

The Whigs met in Baltimore on May 1 and nominated their long time party leader and 1824 presidential candidate Henry Clay. Clay had initially opposed the annexation of Texas as he believed that any such action without an agreement with Mexico would surely provoke a war between the United States and Mexico. Clay also understood that the annexation of Texas would only increase the sectional tensions between the North and South and might well split the Whig Part and the nation. This stand was not particularly popular in the South and Clay almost immediately began to backtrack, stating that he would support the annexation of Texas, even in the absence of an agreement with Mexico provided both North and South supported it. Then, he changed his mind again, and finally stopped talking about annexation altogether, campaigning on domestic issues. It didn’t work.

For Clay’s running mate, the Whigs nominated Theodore Frelinghuysen, a Senator from New Jersey. The Whigs felt that the devout, Northern Frelinghuysen would provide a nice balance with Henry Clay, the Kentuckian who had become notorious for his drinking, gambling, and dueling. Frelinghuysen was perhaps too devout as his Evangelical Christian faith led him to oppose slavery, he wanted to send them all back to Africa, and Indian removal. Neither position was apt to win him support in the South and West. Frelinghuysen also happened to believe that Catholics should be encouraged to convert to Protestantism, which cost the ticket votes among the small but growing Catholic population in the North.

Martin Van Buren was, at first, the prospective nominee of the Democrats, who met at the Odd Fellows Hall in Baltimore late in May. Van Buren lost his support because of his opposition to the annexation of Texas. There was no other front runner for the Democratic nomination until the little known James Knox Polk was introduced on the eighth ballot. Polk had been Speaker of the House from 1835-1839 and governor of Tennessee from 1839-1841. He had acquired a reputation for being quietly competent and had made few enemies and this along with his strong support of the annexation of Texas caused Polk to be nominated on the ninth ballot. The Democrats, at first, had wanted Silas Wright from New York as Polk’s running mate, but Wright was a supporter of Van Buren’s and declined the honor. Instead, the Democrats nominated Senator George M. Dallas from Pennsylvania.

The election of 1844 had the usual amount of personal abuse which was becoming common in American presidential politics. The Democrats had ample material to denounce Clay for his loose morals, declaring him unfit to lead a Christian nation like America. The Whigs found it difficult to reply in kind, since Polk had apparently done nothing fun in his entire life. Instead, the Whigs emphasized Polk’s lack of prominence in national politics, implying that he lacked the experience to be president. The Northern Whigs tried to portray Polk as slave trader and a creature of the Southern Slavocracy. For his part, Polk cleverly linked the annexation of Texas with the Oregon Territory dispute, making the question one of national expansion rather than the expansion of slavery. In the end Polk won by a fairly narrow margin. The Democratic ticket gained 1,339, 494,  popular votes, or 49.5%, against the Whig’s 1,300,004 votes or 48.1%. James G. Birney of the anti-slavery Liberty party got 62,103 votes or 2.3% of the popular vote, enough to have made a difference in some Northern states. In the Electoral College, Polk got 170 electoral votes, winning states both in the North and South. Manifest Destiny proved to be a popular platform. Clay won 105 Electoral Votes, winning his home state, Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, and a few Eastern states, including New Jersey, North Carolina and Massachusetts.

The Election of 1844
The Election of 1844

The United States formally annexed Texas in March 1845, just before Polk took office. As expected, The Mexican War broke out the following year. Despite the bluster of the expansionists with their cry of 54-40 or fight, Polk was not so foolish as to fight both Mexico and Great Britain at the same time and negotiated a compromise with the British over the Oregon Territory extending the border at the 49th parallel to the Pacific Coast. As for Polk, he served one term, during which he worked very hard, to the point of exhaustion. He declined to run for a second term and died within three months of the end of his administration.