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 1848

As the election of 1848 approached, it was starting to become impossible to ignore the increasingly divisive issue of slavery in the United States. Hardly anyone wanted to abolish slavery where it existed, but there was a growing feeling in the North that slavery ought to be contained and not permitted to expand into any new territories. This had been made more difficult by the aftermath of the recently concluded Mexican War. The territories which had been gained from Mexico which were south of the line established in the Missouri Compromise of 1820 were open to slavery. The Whigs, at least the northern branch of the party, had been opposed to the Mexican War for this reason. Led by an obscure congressman from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln, the northern Whigs accused the Polk administration of waging an aggressive war against Mexico for empty military glory and to expand the slave territories. The relatively quick and easy American victory over Mexico made such anti-war sentiments politically incorrect however, and the Whigs found they had to backtrack before the upcoming election.

Missouri_Compromise_map
The Missouri Compromise

 

There was no question of the incumbent President James K. Polk running for reelection. He had promised to serve only one term and he was exhausted from performing his duties as president. Polk died only three months after leaving his office. The Democrats met at their national convention in Baltimore on May 22. There they selected Senator Lewis Cass for president. Cass had been the territorial governor of Michigan from 1813 to 1831 and then had served as Secretary of War under Andrew Jackson, minister to France and then from 1845 to 1848 a Senator from Michigan. His running mate was William Orlando Butler, a veteran of the War of 1812, who had served as a Congressman from Kentucky from 1839-1943.

There was a problem with Cass, however, at least as far as the New York delegation was concerned. Cass was an advocate of “squatter” or popular sovereignty on the issue of slavery, believing that the people of a territory should determine whether a state should be admitted as a free or slave state. Some of the New York delegation, the Hunkerers because they “hunkered” after offices, supported Cass’s nomination, while others, the Barnburners believed Cass to be too soft on slavery. In the end, the Barnburners left the convention and, along with other anti-slavery people and organized the Free Soil Party. The Free Soilers, with their slogan, “Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Labor and Free Men” nominated former president Martin van Buren and John Quincy Adams’s son, Charles Francis Adams.

The Whigs were anxious for the voters to forget that they had even been against the Mexican War, so when they met in Philadelphia in June, they nominated General Zachary Taylor, Old Rough and Ready for president. Taylor had never held any political office, had no set political opinions on any issue, and had never even voted, but he had led an American army to victory in Mexico, so he seemed to be perfect for the job of president. The Whigs also nominated Millard Fillmore, a congressman from New York who had served from 1833 to 1843, who had then served as the New York State Comptroller, as Taylor’s running mate.

Many Whigs were anxious about nominating a candidate with absolutely no political experience. Daniel Webster feared that a man he regarded as “an illiterate frontier colonel” would be unelectable. Other Whigs, including Lincoln, made a virtue out of Taylor’s inexperience, pointing out that he would be sure to follow the will of the people.

There was the usual mudslinging throughout the campaign. The Democrats portrayed Taylor as an ignorant, illiterate military autocrat who thirsted for martial glory and establish himself as a dictator, after the example of Caesar or Napoleon. He was stingy and cruel to his slaves. The Whigs retaliated by claiming that Cass was dishonest, and involved in graft from his tenure as Superintendent of Indian Affairs. They also mocked Cass’s pretensions to military glory. There wasn’t much substantive debate on any issues.

The election of 1848 was the first presidential election in which the election was held on the same day in every state, November 7. From this year on, the national elections would be held on the Tuesday following the first Monday in November. Zachary Taylor won the election without too much trouble, getting 1,360,099 votes (47.3%) to Cass’s 1,220544 (42.5%). Martin van Buren and his Free Soil Party received 291,263 (10.1%) popular votes. Obviously, anti-slavery sentiments were gaining ground, at least in the North. In the Electoral College, Taylor got 163 votes, mostly in the East with all of the largest states, except for Ohio, while Cass won 127 electoral votes. The Free Soilers didn’t win any states, but it is possible they split the Democratic vote, especially in New York, allowing the Whigs to win.

The Election of 1848
The Election of 1848

Although born in Virginia and raised in Kentucky, and a slave owner himself, President Taylor turned out to be a staunch nationalist who sought to prevent the spread of slavery in the new territories.Taylor hinted that he would sign the Wilmot Proviso, which banned slavery in the territories gained from Mexico, if it ever passed Congress, and he wanted California to be admitted as a state without first being organized as a territory so that the slavery issue could be decided by the people of California rather than Congress. Taylor’s highest priority was keeping the Union together and he threatened to personally lead an army against anyone who attempted secession.

Unfortunately, Zachary Taylor died of either Cholera or food poisoning just seventeen months into his term. The new president, Millard Fillmore, lacked Taylor’s strength of character and although he was moderately anti-slavery, was more willing to give in to the demands of Southern slave owners than Taylor had been. Perhaps it was just as well. It is possible that the Civil War might have begun a decade earlier if Taylor had lived. On the other hand, Fillmore’s administration began a decade of inaction when the United States badly needed strong leadership to resolve the increasing sectional tensions.

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.

The Election of 1836

At the end of his second term as president, Andrew Jackson was still popular enough that he could have run for a third term if he wanted. Jackson decided to abide by the two term limit precedent set by the previous presidents and instead promoted the candidacy of his vice-president and hand picked successor, Martin Van Buren. It was curious choice given how very different the two men were. Jackson was a rough and ready frontiersman who had worked his way up from an impoverished youth to become a military hero. Van Buren was a smooth politician from New York who was descended from an old Dutch family. Although they agreed on most of the issues, the two men didn’t really have a lot in common. The thing that actually brought them closer together and convinced President Jackson that Van Buren was just the right man to continue his legacy was the Peggy Eaton, or petticoat affair.

Peggy Eaton was a pretty young woman from Washington D. C. who had developed a certain reputation by her teens. In 1816, at the age of 17, Peggy eloped with a thirty-nine year old Navy Purser named John Timberlake. Timberlake died at sea in 1828 and Peggy married an old friend, Senator John Henry Eaton. This would not normally be considered scandalous, except that there were rumors that John and Peggy had been somewhat more than friends and that Timberlake had committed suicide because he learned of her infidelities.

At the beginning of his first term, in 1829, President Jackson had appointed Martin Van Buren as his Secretary of State and his friend Senator Eaton as Secretary of War, and that was when the scandal broke. Peggy Eaton was accused in Washington society of being an adulteress who had married Eaton indecently quickly after the death of her first husband instead of spending a proper time in mourning. In mean girls fashion, all of the wives of the men in Jackson’s cabinet snubbed John and Peggy Eaton and get their husbands to do likewise. Vice-President John C. Calhoun‘s wife Floride was the ringleader of this clique and this, along with their differences over state’s rights led to Jackson dropping Calhoun from the ticket when he ran for his second term, since Jackson, recalling the vicious gossip about his own marriage to his beloved Rachel, took the side of the Eatons, against his whole cabinet, except for Martin Van Buren, who being a widower did not have a wife to fear.

Because President Jackson became involved the petticoat affair caused a schism in his cabinet that made it impossible to govern. Jackson was unwilling to ask his friend Eaton to resign, so in 1831, he had everyone in his cabinet resign and began again with a new cabinet. Since Martin Van Buren was the only member of the cabinet who had treated the Eatons decently, Jackson made him his vice-president for his second term  selected Van Buren as his political successor.

With Jackson’s support, Van Buren easily won the Democratic nomination for president at the convention that met in Baltimore in May 1836. For his running mate, the convention selected Congressman Richard Mentor Johnson from Kentucky. Although Johnson balanced the ticket, being from the South, and something of a war hero from the War of 1812 and the conflicts against the Indians, he was a controversial choice because he had had a longstanding affair with a slave named Julia Chinn, who he treated as his wife.

The American Second Party System was still developing in 1836. There had been some opposition to Jackson from a variety of factions and these came together to oppose Van Buren. The National Republicans from the previous election joined with state’s rights supporters and the Anti-Masonic Party to form the Whig Party. The Whig Party was only united in their opposition to Andrew Jackson and they never did form a coherent party identity before breaking up over the slavery issue. In 1836, this disparate group could not settle on a site for a national convention or a single candidate, so they nominated three presidential candidates with each man appealing to a different region of the country. First there was Senator Daniel Webster from Massachusetts. He was a supporter of Henry Clay and could win New England and the Anti-Masons. Senator Hugh White from Tennessee could attract voters from the South. Finally, there was William Henry Harrison, a Senator from Ohio and the first governor of the Indiana Territory, he was most famous for leading the military force that defeated Tecumseh’s coalition of Indians at the Battle of Tippecanoe. Harrison, then, was a war hero who could really the West. The Whigs hoped that each candidate would be popular enough to defeat Van Buren in his region and since no candidate could gain a majority. The House of Representatives would select the new president from among the top three, presumably Whig, candidates. It was an unusual strategy that has never been tried again. Perhaps because it didn’t work.


There is not much to say about the actual campaign. There was a great deal of personal invective from both sides. The Whigs assailed Van Buren for being merely a clever politician without character or principles who was evasive on where he stood on the issues. The Whigs in the Senate, over which Van Buren presided as part of his duties as Vice-President, tried to embarrass Van Buren and arranged for tie votes, which would oblige Van Buren to cast a deciding, and possibly controversial, vote. The Democrats portrayed Van Buren as a worthy successor to Jackson and attacked the honor and credentials of the three Whigs.

In the end, the Democrats proved to be far better organized than their opponents and proved to be far better at rallying their supporters. Van Buren won the majority he needed. He won 764,168 or 50.9% of the popular vote.  He won 170 electoral votes from states all around the Union. Of the three Whigs, William Henry Harrison proved to be the most popular with 550,816 or 36.6% of the popular vote. Harrison won the mid western states Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio, as well as Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey and Vermont for a total of 73 electoral votes. Hugh got 146,109 or 9.7% of the popular vote carrying only Tennessee and Georgia with 26 electoral votes. Daniel Webster won only his home state of Massachusetts and 14 electoral votes. Webster received 41,201 or 2.7% of the popular vote.

The Election of 1836
The Election of 1836

There was one more Whig, Willie Person Magnum who got South Carolina’s 11 electoral votes. South Carolina was the only remaining state in which the electors which selected by the state legislature rather than by popular vote.

Willie Person Magnum
Willie Person Magnum

 

There was one other oddity about the election of 1836. This was the only election in which the Senate selected the Vice President, as provided by the twelfth amendment,

The person having the greatest number of votes as Vice-President, shall be the Vice-President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed, and if no person have a majority, then from the two highest numbers on the list, the Senate shall choose the Vice-President; a quorum for the purpose shall consist of two-thirds of the whole number of Senators, and a majority of the whole number shall be necessary to a choice. But no person constitutionally ineligible to the office of President shall be eligible to that of Vice-President of the United States.

Van Buren’s running mate, Richard Johnson, proved to be very unpopular in the South because of his relationship with Julia Chenn, and 23 of Virginia’s electors who supported Van Buren refused to vote for Johnson. As a result he only received 147 electoral votes, one short of a majority. Johnson easily won the Senate vote which was along party lines 36 for Johnson to 16 for the Whig Francis Granger.