Who Is James K. Polk?
The Enigma of our Eleventh President
Presented on the occasion of the 10th annual Hayes Lecture on the Presidency, February 14, 1999, in the Hayes Museum auditorium.
by Robert W. Johannsen
When the Democrats met in Baltimore in May, 1844, to nominate their candidate for the presidential election later that year, they deliberately passed over the party's leadersMartin Van Buren, John C. Calhoun, Lewis Cass, James Buchanan, Thomas Hart Benton, to name a fewand selected instead a relatively unknown former congressman from Tennessee who just nine months before had been defeated for the governorship of his state. The Whig opposition, party leaders and editors of the party's press, met the Democratic action with ridicule and delight. 'Who is James K. Polk?' they asked derisively. It was not that they really didn't know who he was; they just wanted to remind the voters that the Democratic party had nominated an individual who was so little known, and hence so poorly qualified, to serve in the highest office in the country. They thought their query would call attention to the fact that the Democrats had made a monumental mistake. Polk's meagre record would be no match for that of their candidate, the experienced, powerful and popular Kentuckian, Henry Clay, whose name had been virtually synonymous with American political development for over three decades. Clay himself, in a fit of arrogant self-confidence, expressed disappointment that the Democrats had not chosen a person "more worthy of a contest."
There were no polls in mid-nineteenth century America, but if there had been, the Whigs might have been less confident. The popularity of the expansionist platform adopted by the Democratic party, Clay's inability to make up his mind on the issue of Texas annexation, his rejection of northern abolitionist support, and the disarray in the Whig ranks provoked by Clay's bitter feud with President John Tyler, were all factors that influenced the outcome of the election. Contrary to all expectations, Polk eked out a narrow victory on election day to become at age 49 the youngest president in American history to that time. No one was more surprised at the result than Polk himself.
The Whigs were stunned, and some never got over their defeat. One
such was Abraham Lincoln, who nurtured his resentment for four years? until
1848, when he finally exploded in fury over Polk's effort to justify the war
with Mexico. Polk, he declared, was a liar. Addressing the house of
representatives in harsh and strident language that belied his reputation for
calm and reasoned argument, Lincoln accused Polk with abusing the power of
his office, contemptuously disregarding the Constitution, usurping the role of
congress, and assuming the role of dictator. He compared the president's
feeble explanations to the "half-insane mumbling of a fever dream," and
called down upon Polk's head the wrath of God.
Several years later, a young army officer in the Mexican War now
grown old in the service of his country and carefully cultivating a hero's
reputation, agreed with Lincoln's assessment. Polk, wrote the ailing Ulysses
S. Grant in his Memoirs, had forced the United States into an "unholy war"
against Mexico in 1846, "the most unjust [war] ever waged," not only in
American history but in all world history. The Civil War, with its frightful
cost in blood and bitterness, Grant maintained, was God's punishment for Polk's sin.
With two such leaders, the one virtually canonized for leading the
nation through the fiery trial of civil war, the other the savior of the union on
the field of battle, both invoking the Deity against the hapless executive, who
could doubt that our eleventh president deserved the opprobrium of an
outraged people. Historians writing the history of the Civil War during the
last decades of the nineteenth century certainly had no doubts. Polk, they
noted, was a southerner and a slaveholder, whose policies as president
fostered the expansion of slavery, perpetuated the grip of the south on the
national government, and placed the nation on the road to civil war. In their
histories, he became "Polk the Mendacious," a scheming intriguer, bowing in
servile subservience to the wicked designs of the slave power.
Attitudes, however, began to change in the years following the turn of
the century. The generation that fought the Civil War was gradually
disappearing from the scene, replaced by younger writers, many of them
academics, whose judgments were based less on emotion and first-hand
experience and more on a dispassionate examination of the records. With the
death of Polk's widow in 1896, a vast collection of Polk's personal
correspondence and papers, including the diary he kept with remarkable
fidelity during his presidency, were discovered moldering in the attic of her
home and made available to researchers. Of singular importance was Polk's
diary, published in four volumes in 1910 and reprinted and abridged in later
editions. It has been more responsible than any other source for encouraging a
reassessment of Polk's presidency. Recognized today as one of the most
valuable documents for the study of the American presidency, the diary
provides a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse of decision-making in the White
House, and offers an unusual insight into the day-by-day administration of the
government during one of the most criticaland excitingperiods in
American history. Presidents who wish to be remembered as great, some
have said, should keep diaries.
All of us at some time may have played the game of identifying our
best and worst presidents, but beginning in 1948 a number of historians have
tried to refine the game by developing sophisticated polling techniques in the
hope that some consensus in the appraisal of our presidents might be
achieved. The pollsand there have been many since 1948have revealed
a striking similarity in their results. Lincoln always topped the lists. Franklin
D. Roosevelt, Washington, Jefferson, and Theodore Roosevelt usually filled
out the top five, with Wilson, Jackson, and Truman not far behind.
One of the surprises has been the consistently high ranking in all the
polls of James K. Polk. Listed as "Near Great" among the top ten presidents
in all the early rankings, Polk was classified as "Above Average," twelfth of
the thirty-six presidents listed, in the most recent poll.
A very unscientific ranking by Harry Truman, himself one of the
polls' best presidents, appeared in 1988, when he presented his selection of
the eight best presidents. Named by Truman in no particular order were
Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, Jackson, Cleveland, Wilson, Franklin D.
Roosevelt andJames K. Polk. Of Polk, Truman wrote, "This choice may
surprise some people." And so it did.
Once again, Americans were asking, Who is James K. Polk? Well,
who was he?
Born into a prominent and affluent Scotch-Irish family in western
North Carolina in 1795, Polk was raised in an atmosphere of strict
Presbyterianism, from which he derived a rigid self-discipline that would
govern his actions to the end of his life. As a youth he moved with his family
to middle Tennessee, where his father and grandfather had already acquired
vast tracts of land, but returned to the University of North Carolina at Chapel
Hill for his education. There he majored in mathematics and the classics,
subjects he felt would best discipline his mind.
Although trained in the law following his graduation in 1818, Polk
preferred the excitement of a political career. The mid-1820s was a time of
political change and transition, and a new party system was forming around
the imposing figure of Andrew Jackson, a long-time friend of the Polk family.
Polk entered national politics in 1825, when he was elected to his first term in
the lower house of congress. A dedicated follower of Old Hickory, he played
an important role in the organization of the new Democratic party and
remained an intimate friend of Jackson for two decades. Re-elected six times,
Polk served in the house of representatives for fourteen years, seven terms,
from 1825 to 1839. He became Jackson's floor leader during the Old Hero's
two terms as president, defending his policies and programs, and as a
member of important committees, maneuvering the president's legislation through the
Like his mentor, Polk championed states rights and a strict
interpretation of the Constitution. He believed in a simple, plain, and
economical government, and vigorously opposed the efforts of such men as
John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay to consolidate power on the national
level. The greatest threat to republican government, Polk was convinced, was
the growing power of money and of a "moneyed aristocracy," symbolized in
the Second United States Bank. In one of his most powerful speeches in the
house, Polk warned Americans against what he called the "despotism of
money," and predicted with remarkable foresight that if not checked, the
power of money would soon "control your election of President, of your
Senators, and of your Representatives."
During his last two terms in the house of representatives, Polk held the
office of Speaker, at a time when the slavery issue was heating up and the
first sparks of American territorial expansion were being struck. The
abolition movement, following a new militant strategy, flooded the house with
petitions demanding the abolition of slavery, at the same time that Texas
threw off Mexican rule and raised the possibility that the number of slave
states would soon be increased. For Speaker Polk, it was a baptism of fire, as
he encountered for the first time the intensity and depth of feeling associated
with the slavery question.
Although a slaveholder and owner of two plantations, Polk had never
been an aggressive defender of the institution. He had grown up with slavery
(his father and grandfather had both been slaveholding planters) and accepted
it as a fact of life. At the same time, he believed slavery to be what he called a
"common evil," but it was also an institution that had been "entailed on us by
our ancestors," one that could not easily be removed without doing
irreparable damage to both the south and the union. He always insisted that
the abolitionists, those who attacked the institution' were motivated primarily
by political and anti-southern considerations and would stop at nothing to
achieve their goals, even the destruction of the republic.
Polk reluctantly left his seat in congress in 1839 to serve a single two-
year term as governor of Tennessee, a move he agreed to make in order to
redeem his state from Whig rule and to strengthen the Democratic party. After
two unsuccessful bids for re-election, he decided to save his political career
by becoming a candidate for the vice presidential nomination in 1844. It was
at that point that, by a bizarre turn of events, he became a candidate for the
presidency instead. Seldom has a politician's career turned around so suddenly
Polk's election as president may seem all the more strange to us today,
for in character and personality he hardly conformed to the image we seem to
prefer in our chief executives. He lacked charisma, had no oratorical power,
and no personal magnetism. He was forbearing, modest, even dull. One
Washington editor found him to be the "most unpretending man, for his
talents, this, or perhaps any country, has ever seen." A recent historian, in
accounting for the fact that few people in our own day know much about
Polk, has concluded that "men are remembered for their unique qualities, and
Polk had none."
Polk's political enemies often made the most of Polk's straightforward
matter-of-fact manner. John Quincy Adams, who elevated personal calumny
to an art form, found Polk to be hardly qualified "for an eminent County
Court lawyer." "He has no wit," Adams contended, "no literature, no point
of argument, no gracefulness of delivery, no elegance of language, no
philosophy, no pathos, no felicitous impromptus; nothing that constitutes an
orator, but confidence, fluency, and labor."
Formal, stiff, and humorless in his demeanor, Polk was always
concerned with maintaining his dignity and that of the office he held, whether
it be chairman of a house committee, speaker of the house of representatives,
or president of the United States. He brought a high level of discipline,
diligence, and intellectual acumen to the responsibilities of his office. He was
a man who fixed his eyes clearly on his goals, and pursued them "with
When he accepted the Democratic nomination for president, Polk
promised that, if elected, he would not be a candidate for re-election, that
a single term as president was all that he wantedand he kept his promise.
His friends felt that he had made a mistake, and his political opponents
refused to believe that he would resist the temptation of a second term, but
Polk remained steadfast.
Widely known as Young Hickory, Polk was determined to re-establish
the program and policies of Old Hickory that had suffered erosion under the
Whigs following the 1840 election. He held the Jacksonian concept of the
presidency, that the president was the only officer of government elected by
all the people, that he would be president of all the people, that it was his
responsibility to heed the voice of the people and to carry out the popular
will. Like Jackson, Polk made full use of the power of the presidency,
including the exercise of the veto power, to accomplish his goals.
Although a southerner at a time when the south's role in the nation was
being questioned, he refused to recognize sectional, as opposed to national,
interests, and remained aloof from the factional differences within his own
party. Reserved and quiet by nature, he seldom took others into his
confidence and rarely sought the advice of even his closest friends. He was
determined to be at the center of his administration, to be his own man. "I
intend to be myself President of the United States," he announced. Even
Jackson was annoyed when he discovered that he could not influence the
course of Polk's administration.
Polk concentrated his full energy on carrying out the duties of his
office. No previous president, it was said, had ever applied himself so
assiduously to the government's business. Twelve hour work days were not
uncommon. He seldom delegated responsibilities or shared the burdens of his
office with others. While he maintained a close watch over his cabinet
departments and demanded unwavering cooperation from his cabinet
members, he also learned to do without them. "I have never in my life
labored more constantly or intensely," Polk remarked. "I am the hardest
working man in the country."
During his four years as president, Polk rarely left Washington. He
regarded time as wasted if it was spent in mere pleasure. He insisted that
presidents who took their duties seriously could never take vacations. "No
President," he observed, "who performs his duty faithfully and
conscientiously can have any leisure." There was little time in Polk's
schedule for the social functions of his office. Receptions, dinner parties,
concerts, and other entertainments in the White House were to him "time
unprofitably spent," and he avoided them if it was at all possible.
Polk's inaugural address was a message of hope and confidence to a
nation that was not many years older than he. He paid tribute to America's
republican system, the "most admirable and wisest system of well-regulated
self-government ever devised by human minds," and to the nation's
providential role as the world's "model republic." He reiterated his
Jacksonian faith in a strict adherence to the constitution and a scrupulous
regard for the rights of the states, and he warned against those forces that
were endangering the Union (he had the abolitionists in mind). Like Jackson,
he believed that it was the sacred duty of every American to protect and
preserve the Union. Finally, he dedicated himself to the new spirit of
continental expansion, what soon would be termed 'manifest destiny."
Like Old Hickory, Polk was devoted to his party as the principal
instrument for carrying out the popular will. To him, it was in every respect
the party of democracy. In charting the course of his administration, he was
influenced first and foremost by the Democratic party platform on which he
had stood in the presidential election. Texas, which he regarded as having
once been a part of the country, must be restored to the United States, and the
Oregon country, to which America held a clear and unquestionable title and
which at that very moment was being settled by thousands of Americans,
must be brought under the jurisdiction of American republicanism, in spite of
the grasping hands of British imperial power. To these goals were added the
reduction of the tariff to a revenue level, with the elimination of the protective
principle so dear to the hearts of Whigs, and the establishment of the
independent treasury system, the democratic alternative to the Whig
preference for an all-powerful central bank. Finally, Polk added the
acquisition of California, an aim that sprang from economic and manifest
destiny considerations as well as from signs of British encroachment on the
Pacific coast. Having listed his objectives, Polk pursued them relentlessly
until he had accomplished them all.
Four months after Polk took office, the annexation of Texas was
completed and by December 1845 when Texas was admitted to the Union as
a state, the boundary of the United States was extended to the Rio Grande.
The first president to utilize the principles of the Monroe Doctrine following
its initial declaration in 1823, Polk seized the initiative in the negotiations with
Great Britain over the Oregon boundary in what proved to be a risky but
successful game of brinksmanship. "The only way to treat John Bull," he
declared, "was to look him straight in the eye." The British blinked, the
boundary with British North America was extended along the forty-ninth
parallel, and the United States achieved its first uncontested frontage on the
Within fifteen months of his inauguration, Polk had presided over the
addition of two immense regions to the United States, Texas and Oregon.
The addition of Texas to the Union, however, involved the United States in a
war with its southern neighbor. Probably the most remembered and most
studied of the events during Polk's presidency was the war with Mexico. The
causes of the war are complex and controversial. Suffice it to say that a
background of deteriorating relations between the two countries came to
climax when Mexico challenged the addition of Texas to the American Union,
that people in both countries sought and welcomed war, that Mexico took the
first steps toward severing relations with the United States and made the first
war declaration, and that Polk made a serious attempt to settle the
grievances by peaceful negotiation only to have the effort spurned
by Mexico's military leadership.
Polk administered the war as he did everything else that came up
during his administrationwith a single-minded dedication to what he
perceived to be his responsibilities of leadership. He was the first president
to define and implement the full powers of his office as commander-in-chief.
"He proved," wrote a recent historian, "that a President could run a war.'' He
not only placed the nation on a wartime footing almost overnight, providing
for the recruitment of volunteers and the provision of arms and supplies, but
he also involved himself in all the myriad details that sprang from the
logistical needs of a conflict that was fought in a distant land. Although he
had no military experience, he made many of the tactical decisions that were
conveyed to the armies in Mexico through the secretary of war, and almost
from the moment the conflict began, he undertook negotiations to end it. The
terms of the treaty that finally concluded the war were Polk's terms from the
beginning: the acquisition of the vast southwestern region including California
and New Mexico, recognition by Mexico of the Rio Grande boundary with
the United States, and the granting of a large sum of money to Mexico to
help restore and stabilize its republican form of government.
To Polk, the war with Mexico, fought largely by volunteers drawn from
civilian life, tested the strength of American democracy. A nation based on
democratic principles had vanquished a military dictatorship, proving that
republics were not as weak and ineffective as Europe's monarchies said they
When Polk left office in March 1849, he was physically exhausted and
suffering ill health. His condition worsened as he made a triumphal tour
through the south on his way to his home in Tennessee. On the day he left
the White House, he had expressed his relief that he was now free "from all
public cares." To his diary, he confided, "I am sure I shall be a happier man
in my retirement than I have been during the four years I have filled the
highest office in the gift of my countrymen." Polk never found the
contentment he so looked forward to. Three months after he left Washington,
Polk left behind him a legacy of leadership that Americans will surely
come to appreciate. Who is James K. Polk? Perhaps Harry Truman, a person
of no little presidential experience himself, put it best: Polk "exercised the
powers of the Presidency ... as they should be exercised"; he knew "exactly
what he wanted to do in a specified period of time and did it, and when he got
through with it he went home."