An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: The Presidents of the United States of America: James K. Polk

Nov 26, 2012 by

James K. Polk

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1)      Professor Elder, thank you for agreeing to do this series of interviews to let students all across the United States know a bit more about the men who have led this country for more than 200 years. We are up to the eleventh president of the United States, James K. Polk. When and where was this President born and when did he serve-( during what time period or event or series of events?)

        James K. Polk was born November 2, 1795 in Mecklenberg County, North Carolina. His father, although a fairly prosperous farmer in that area, decided to relocate his family to Tennessee when Polk was 11 in an effort to obtain even better land. The family settled in Maury County, and did indeed prosper in the new location. Polk was home schooled, and in 1814 he entered an academy of higher education in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. He did so well there that he was allowed to transfer to the University of North Carolina. Polk did well (to this day one of the quads at UNC is known as Polk Place), graduating with honors in 1818. Polk then moved back to Tennessee and began to study for the bar examination. While he was thusly engaged, he served as the clerk of the Tennessee Senate. Polk passed the bar in 1820, and began the practice of law. I

In 1823, he successfully ran for the Tennessee state legislature, and two years later he ran successfully for a seat in the US House of Representatives.  While serving in that capacity, Polk was chosen as Speaker of the House in 1835. Four years later, Polk resigned his seat in the House to run for governor in Tennessee. He won, but after serving one two-year term he was defeated while seeking reelection. Polk ran again in 1843, but was again defeated. It seemed that his political career came to an end, but he was suddenly thrust back into prominence in 1844.

The Whigs had won the presidency in 1840 behind the candidacy of William Henry Harrison, but Harrison had died a month into his term of office. John Tyler, Harrison’s successor, had proven unable to rally public support, thus making it likely that a Democrat could regain the White House in 1844. But the Democratic Party was badly fractured over the future of slavery, and at the party convention none of the prominent Democrats (like former president Martin van Buren) could gain enough votes to secure the nomination. Polk was supporting van Buren, and when it became apparent that van Buren could never get enough votes to achieve the nomination van Buren told the delegates who had supported him to switch their allegiance to Polk.

Polk won the nomination on the ninth ballot, and ran as the Democratic candidate in 1844. He lost both his birth state, and his adopted state, a situation that has doomed most presidential candidates, but he managed to win enough states to give him a comfortable margin of victory in the Electoral College.

2)       What was he MOST known for?

        Polk had run on a platform that promised voters two things: the annexation of Texas and an unequivocal claim to the Oregon Territory. As it turned out, Congress annexed Texas after Polk was elected but before he was inaugurated. That left Polk with only the task of successfully negotiating a treaty with Great Britain to determine the future of the Oregon Territory. After coming close to war with the British over the issue, a compromise was reached in June of 1846 in which the 49th Parallel was established as the boundary between the Oregon Territory and Canada. If for this accomplishment alone, Polk would be regarded as a successful president, but his term would also see the United States add thousands of square miles to the national domain from a different diplomatic endeavor. Polk was a firm believer in the tenets of Manifest Destiny, and wanted to secure at least one Pacific port for the United States. During his presidency, that meant that he wanted either San Francisco or San Diego, both of which were controlled by Mexico.

Polk attempted negotiations to purchase one of these ports, but because of outstanding differences between the two nations the Mexicans refused to even meet with American diplomats. Polk then sought to provoke a confrontation with Mexico by sending an American military force into the area between the Nueces and Rio Grande Rivers in present-day Texas, a stretch of land that Mexico regarded as its own territory. Regarding this incursion as an invasion, Mexican forces attacked an American detachment in May of 1846, shedding American blood.

Polk used this as a pretext to ask for a declaration of war, and Congress complied. The US would win this conflict (know today as the US War with Mexico), and in the process take land from Mexico that comprises the present-day California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and part of Colorado. This is what Polk would be best known for.

3)      What would you say were his strengths?

        Polk was a person who, having made up his mind, showed a remarkable ability to doggedly pursue that course of action. His resolute devotion to the task at hand allowed him to achieve the goals of his administration.

4)      What were his relative weaknesses- politically perhaps, personally?

        Polk seems to have been blind to the ramifications of his foreign policy initiatives. He personally felt that the land taken from Mexico would be unsuitable for slavery, never realizing that it was the issue of whether slavery should be allowed to expand into that region was the real question. Many historians feel that as a slaveholder himself, Polk lacked the detachment to be able to see how divisive his foreign policy initiative would be.

5)      What would you say was his impact on the United States and possibly the world?

        Polk clearly made the United States a much larger, and more powerful, nation. We may well have eventually received an unquestioned claim to the Pacific Northwest, but Polk made it a certainty. And Polk’s victory in the US War with Mexico increased the land size of the United States by a third. The war itself made the rest of the world aware of the fact that the US was a growing military power that could not be trifled with.

6)      In terms of his place in history- it seems to be secure- but could you summarize your views as a historian about him?

        Historians began to rate presidents in 1948, and at that time Polk was regarded as the 10th-best president of all time. Since then Polk has risen to as high as 8th place, and has never fallen lower than 11th. In the most recent poll he ranked 10th.

7)      What would you say were his greatest accomplishments?

        Polk’s victory in the US War with Mexico was clearly the signature piece of his administration, with the acquisition of the claim to the Oregon Territory a close second.

8)      Could you provide a summary statement about our eleventh President?

        Polk is unique in American History in two respects. First, he was the most obscure person to have been chosen as a presidential candidate when the Democrats tapped him for that distinction in 1844. He thus became the first politician that we would call a “dark horse candidate.” And second, he announced even before he won the election that he would only serve one term.

There have been other presidents who only served one term, but they had all wanted to remain president until political reality finally showed them the futility of that hope. Polk, by renouncing the office even before he assumed it, thus remains an anomaly to this day.

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