Posts Tagged ‘presidency’

The Best President You’ve Never Heard Of

December 16, 2019

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.

 

Trump’s Character

January 22, 2019

Well, Mitt Romney has had his say about the character of President Donald Trump, so I might as well put forward my own thoughts on the subject. To begin with, Mitt Romney states that the President shapes the public character of the nation. I think that is giving the president too much credit. The is not some sort of divine figure or king. He does not have magical powers to affect the country for good or evil.  The president cannot make America great again. Only we, the people can do that. The president is not the boss. We, the people, are the bosses, and the politicians and bureaucrats are our servants, whatever they may think. We need to move beyond the idea of the president being some sort of elected monarch, and return to the republican idea of the president as merely the first servant of the people. No more and no less.

We did not “hire” the president to be the nation’s pastor or role model. We “hired” the president to manage the government in a way that benefits the country. The most important part of the job of president is protecting the lives and interests of the American people. Doing this duty well is more important than the personal character of the man we hired. I would say that Donald Trump has done his job very well, so far.

One more thing. Quoting Mitt Romney,

It is well known that Donald Trump was not my choice for the Republican presidential nomination. After he became the nominee, I hoped his campaign would refrain from resentment and name-calling. It did not. When he won the election, I hoped he would rise to the occasion.

I would like to remind Mr. Romney that he lost the election in 2012 while Trump won in 2016. Part of the reason Mitt Romney lost was because he was unwilling to descend to the level of name calling and resentment that the Democratic Party regularly indulges in against every single Republican. It would be nice if our political campaigns were decent affairs with elevated discussions of the issues with Lincoln-Douglas style debates. That is not the country we are living in, however, and experience has shown that playing by Marquess of Queensbury rules against a party determined to seize power at any cost. George W. Bush tried being the decent man and the Democrats destroyed him.

Now, regarding Donald Trump. I would never regard Donald Trump as any sort of role model either in his personal life or in his business practices. I suspect that if I ever met Trump, I wouldn’t like him very much. Nevertheless,I believe that Donald Trump does have more integrity than almost anyone else in Washington. It is strange to say this, and I cannot believe I am writing it, but it is true.

Why would I say this? Basically for three reasons. First, President Donald Trump keeps his promises. We have become so used to political candidates promising us everything, and then forgetting their promises the day after they takes office that it has become a cliche.  They can promise, “No new taxes” while planning to raise taxes. They can tell us we can keep our doctors knowing full well that we won’t.  We no longer expect them to even try to keep their promises. .Why is this? If someone we knew personally kept breaking his promises, we wouldn’t have anything to do with him. Why don’t we expect the same of our elected officials?

Donald Trump made a number of promises while campaigning for president. He said that he would build a wall. He said he would renegotiate our trade deals. We said he would defeat ISIS. For the most part, Trump has tried to keep his promises. If we never get a wall built, it will not be for lack of effort on Trump’s part. Surely a president who keeps his word is worth something.

Second, Donald Trump is willing to fight. So many Republicans aren’t willing to fight. Like Romney, they would rather be gentlemen and lose than actually fight and win. Trump does not back down against opposition. I think that any other Republican president would have withdrawn Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court after the ferocious opposition he encountered from the Democrats. Trump did not back down. He stood up for his nominee. Courage is the capstone of the virtues. Without courage, all of the other virtues are worthless. One can be compassionate or honest in one’s mind, but to put these virtues into effect requires courage. Donald Trump has courage. That is worth a lot.

Lastly, Donald Trump is honest. This may be a strange thing to say, given Trump’s propensity to boast and exaggerate and given how often his hyperbolic statements are at variance with sober facts, but in a very real way, Trump is more honest than almost anyone else in Washington. We have, as a society and particularly among our political and social elites, developed the habit of not giving offense by expressing uncomfortable truths, particularly when those truths might disrupt convenient narratives. This political correctness, as it is usually called, makes it difficult to solve problems since they cannot even be discussed honestly. Trump doesn’t seem to have much of a problem with political correctness.  His statements may often seem to be offensive, but they are often true. People were offended when Trump allegedly referred to “shithole countries”, but many of our immigrants do come from “shithole countries” No one can honestly say that Haiti or Nigeria are examples of successful nations. (Of course, Trump did miss the point that people from nice countries have little reason to want to emigrate.) Trump is right about the need for better security at the border. Everyone knows it. No one has wanted to say it. Trump is right to complain that our European allies are not paying their share for their own defense. It may offend those allies to say this, but it is true. Trump may be offensive by saying unpleasant truths, but they are truths that need to be said.

Mitt Romney may not like Donald Trump’s character. He may believe that Donald Trump is debasing the presidency and the nation. I don’t entirely disagree. The fact is, however, that Donald Trump is doing and saying the things that need to be done. His policies have been sound, for the most part, and he really has been doing his part towards making America great again. We could do better than Donald Trump, no doubt, but we could do a lot worse. He seems to be the right man for the time.


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