Remembering President Polk

It’s History Friday!

President James Polk has fallen out of favor with many of today’s historians.  Yet many professors put him on the top ten list of U.S. Presidents for his vast achievements.  He only served one term, yet accomplished more than some presidents do in two.    

The significance of Polk’s legacy lies in the fact that he and his administration played a large part in doubling the size of our country.  Settling the Texas issue, getting California from Mexico and pushing Europe out of the Oregon territory – was mostly Polk’s period.  That’s why he matters.  That’s why his term is consequential. 

Like Van Buren, he was one of Andrew Jackson’s disciples.  In fact, his election to the presidency was the last act of Jackson’s golden political career.  There are lessons to be learned from Polk’s administration.  He was one of the first President’s to demand loyalty from his Cabinet in a time when the Cabinet was the bullpen for the Presidency.  He accomplished much and turned into a president that Americans were proud of. 

However, after reading Polk, I found great disappointment.  He was a slave owner with little remorse.  He was the first president to usurp Congress’ power to declare war in favor of executive military might.  This is big.  Prior to this, Congress decided whether to go to war.  It was with Polk that the idea of war would start with the President.   In fact, Polk greatly exceeded the power of the executive branch, going so far as to, ironically, receive a strong rebuke from a one-term Congressmen from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln.  Sadly, Polk’s legacy is further stained by his hard policies on the native Indian populations.  There is certainly enough baggage to keep Polk off of this site’s top ten president’s list.    

Yet, to be sure, there are things to admire about Polk, the man.  Politically, he promised one term and never wavered.  He laid out an aggressive agenda containing four goals – tariff reduction, an independent treasury, Texas statehood and obtaining the Oregon territory.  He received all four.  Polk pushed Congress to pass tariff reductions, a fine accomplishment for his time.

Personally, he deeply loved his wife and family. 

Even more impressive than his legislative achievements was his personal tenacity.  Polk lost the governorship of Tennessee two times and was declared politically dead before going on to win the democrat nomination for president as an underdog.

What we can really take away from Polk personally is the old Winston Churchill message of never giving up in our search for success.  After two embarrassing runs for Tennessee governor, he stayed in the game.  Polk even lost his own state in the presidential election.  But he marched on. 

Politically, Polk set the example that many successful presidents have utilized.  He set out clear goals, and he went about accomplishing them.  No more, no less.  Polk certainly didn’t turn out to be my favorite but our politicians would do well to lay out clear goals to achieve before going after them.  Let the other party attempt to tear down the idea with sound bites.  We’re still better off having tried, than never having got that far.

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