Useful Notes: James K. Polk

Finished his Bucket List.

"Who the hell is James K. Polk?"
Whig party slogan during the 1844 election campaign.

"Who the hell are the Whigs?"
—Most high school students.

Um... They Might Be Giants sang about him? And the school in Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide was named after him, wasn't it? Or was it Married... with Children?note 

James Knox Polk (November 2, 1795 — June 15, 1849) was the eleventh president of the United States, serving from 1845 to 1849, directly succeeded John Tyler and preceded Zachary Taylor, and was the third from the Democratic Party, and the only one (so far) rocking a mullet.

He was previously in the House of Representatives for fourteen years, and served as Speaker of the House for the last three and a half of them, becoming the only President to have held that position. Was then elected Governor of Tennessee. After that was over, he decided to run for the presidency, and, despite being considered a dark horse, beat the well-known Henry Clay to victory and became, at 49, the youngest man elected at the time. He won on the promise of completing four goals: the reestablishment of an Independent Treasury System, the reduction of tariffs on imports, acquisition of the disputed Oregon Territory, and acquisition of land on the Pacific coast from Mexico.

As president, he oversaw the largest territorial expansion in American history, adding almost one third of the current continental United States. The process of annexing Texas was completed during his first few months of his time in office (though it was almost entirely done during John Tyler's presidency). Regarding the Oregon Territory, he settled on dividing the territory in half along the 49th Parallel with British Canada rather than risk war with the British Empire. We got what are now the states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho out of the deal.

Acquiring land from Mexico proved more problematic. Following troubled diplomatic negotiations and bloody incidents on the border, Polk asked Congress to declare war, and, following a long but rather inevitable road to victory, signed The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Mexico's formal surrender. The Mexican-American War (when Polk, as TMBG put it, "seized the whole southwest from Mexico") was fairly controversial at the time. Abolitionists considered it a war being waged for the purposes of expanding slavery into new territories (at the time, not many people knew that Arizona and New Mexico weren't exactly suitable for plantation labor). It didn't help that he also tried to buy Cuba from Spain, as it was also south of the Missouri Compromise Line. Henry David Thoreau, who refused to pay taxes to support the war, coined the term civil disobedience at this time.

Polk also oversaw the opening of the U.S. Naval Academy and the Smithsonian Institution, the creation of the Department of the Interior, the groundbreaking for the Washington Monument, and the issuance of the first postage stamps in the United States. Texas, Iowa, and Wisconsin were also added to the Union under his watch.

Polk had an enviable record for setting and (gasp!) accomplishing his agenda. Suffered from a chronic inability to delegate authority, and obsessively micromanaged absolutely everything. This is (probably) a large part of why he only served one term and died a few months thereafter. He is widely considered to be an underrated president by many historians and is sometimes called "Our greatest one-term president." Many consider him to be one of the finest American presidents for the simple reason that he achieved everything he wanted to do in his single term. Along with some complicated health problems towards the end of his term, this is why he decided to not run for reelection. It wouldn't have done him any good anyway, as he died only 103 days after Zachary Taylor, his successor, was inaugurated President. At age 53, he had the shortest natural lifespan of any President as well as the shortest post-presidency.

Tropes relating to President Polk:

  • Dark Horse Victory: Polk apparently was the first Real Life political figure to be called a "dark horse". While not completely unknown—he had been Speaker of the House before he left Congress to be elected governor of Tennessee—his political star had faded after he was defeated for reelection as governor in 1841 and was defeated again in 1843. Exactly nobody imagined Polk as a presidential candidate in 1844; Polk and his friends were hoping for a Vice Presidential nomination. Polk's name was put forward on the eighth ballot after the Democratic convention of 1844 could not agree on a candidate. On the ninth ballot, he won the nomination. That November, he narrowly defeated the far better-known Henry Clay to win the Presidency.
  • Happily Married: Polk's last words, addressed to his wife, were "I love you, Sarah. For all eternity, I love you." The Polks had no children. Some historians have suggested that a gallstones operation Polk had in his youth rendered him sterile.
  • Historical-Domain Character: Will sometimes cameo in stories set during the California Gold Rush of 1849 (from which the San Francisco 49ers get their name), since he was President at the time.
  • Legacy Character: His nickname "Young Hickory" referred to his emulation of "Old Hickory" Andrew Jackson.
  • Magnificent Bastard
  • Mexican-American War: What Polk is most remembered for, to the extent that he is remembered, and possibly the reason why he isn't remembered more. It can't really be denied that Polk scammed his way into war. First he annexed Texas, which Mexico still claimed as a province, having refused to recognize the treaty Santa Anna signed while a prisoner of war. Then he sent American troops south of the Nueces River into an area that had never been part of Texas either as a Spanish or Mexican province. Then after Mexican solders shot at American soldiers that were in their country, Polk claimed that the United States had been attacked, and got his declaration of war. Later generations have mostly come to agree with Ulysses S. Grant when he said that he "regard[ed] the one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation." The United States hasn't felt guilty enough to give the Southwest back or anything, but north of the border, the causes of the war and the man who started it have largely been swept under the rug. (A 2009 book titled A Country of Vast Designs makes the somewhat revisionist case that the corrupt, unstable Mexican government more or less had it coming.)
  • Short-Lived Big Impact: Polk served a single four-year term. Here's what he accomplished:
    • Created the Independent Treasury System, which served as the federal government's method of retaining its funds from 1846 until it was replaced by the Federal Reserve System in 1921.
    • Reduced tariffs, as he had promised.
    • Completed the process of annexing Texas that had begun during John Tyler's term.
    • Resolved the Oregon Territory boundary dispute with Britain by running the 49th parallel border all the way to the ocean. This acquired for the United States what are now the states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, as well as chunks of western Montana and Wyoming.
    • Fought and won the Mexican War, which resulted in the United States seizing from Mexico an enormous expanse of land that included all of the modern-day states of California, Nevada and Utah, a sliver of Wyoming, the western thirds of Colorado and New Mexico, and almost all of Arizona.
    • Just to recap those last three items, Polk acquired for the United States Texas and all of the contiguous 48 states west of the Continental Divide, except for the Gadsden Purchase, a slice of southern Arizona and New Mexico bought from Mexico in 1853 in order to build a transcontinental railroad. He basically acquired more territory for the nation that nearly all of the other Presidents combined.
    • On a darker note, the new territory ended up bringing slavery back to the forefront of American politics and started the path towards the American Civil War.
    • Mrs. Polk thought the president's lack of physical stature made him seem unimposing so she made it protocol for the White House band to play "Hail To The Chief" whenever he made a public appearance.
  • Shout-Out: They Might Be Giants' "James K. Polk"
  • Surpassed the Teacher: Polk was such a big admirer of Andrew Jackson he was often refered to as "Young Hickory" (in reference to Jackson's moniker of Old Hickory). Jackson had begun the Westward Expansion program during his presidency with the aim of turning the US into a continental nation spreading from the Atlantic to the Pacific, but only managed to add two state territories to the Union. Polk continued his mentor's legacy and managed to add more land to the Union than all previous presidents combined, completing Jackson's work. Teacher surpassed Up to Eleven.
  • Un-Person: Kind of. Polk is arguably one of the most significant presidents of the nineteenth century, but he lives in relative obscurity due to massive amounts of Values Dissonance. A perfect example of this is the Schoolhouse Rock cartoon "Elbow Room", which covers several events in the westward expansion of the United States while making absolutely no mention of Polk or the Mexican-American War.

Alternative Title(s):

James K Polk