Recently, there has been some talk about John McCain potentially offering a one-term Presidency pledge. I, and the term-limiting Twenty-Second Amendment to the Constitution, think that such a thing is ridiculous and unnecessary.

The last real vow of a one-term Presidency was taken by James K. Polk in 1844. Similar to John McCain in 2008, Polk emerged as the unlikely nominee because his party could not agree on other more well-known and “mainstream” candidates. Because he knew that he was not otherwise the frontrunner, Polk pledged to serve only one term. Such a pledge meant a lot back then, because, if elected, Polk would become the youngest person ever to be elected President, and he would be without term limits. Instead of acting like a lame duck, he achieved almost all of his goals and left a legacy to the United States that is one of the most palpable today.

To get to the point, Polk:

  • Annexed Texas
  • Gained California, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and more from the Mexican-American war
  • Won sovereignty over Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and more through diplomatic means with Great Britain
  • Finalized the making of the US Treasury as a self-functioning entity
  • Created the first new Cabinet position under the Constitution

But his expansionist accomplishments were not all smooth sailing. Polk’s request to go to war with Mexico has always been suspect- many (including U.S. Grant) believed that he only wished to expand slavery with new southern territory. The claim is substantiated by the facts that the Texas annexation allowed for up to four more slave states to be created, and that Polk did not live up to his party’s “Fifty-four Forty of Fight” mantra with Oregon Territory. This gave Whigs a lot of political ground for the election of 1848, claiming that he Democrats fought an immoral war (even though they voted for war appropriations in Congress, making the whole situation much like the Iraq war issue today). In the ensuing election, the Whigs won rather handily, although their candidate was Zachary Taylor, a Mexican-American War hero, which contradicted the party’s prior anti-war rhetoric.

My Point: A one-term pledge produces mixed results and is not necessary today. Polk got a lot done in four years, proving that a one-term President could do the same today. On the other hand, Polk took controversial steps in order to accomplish his agenda, putting his party in harm’s way for the following election, which could also happen today. But because modern Presidents have term limits, any President’s second term could be considered a one-term pledge in and of itself. Considering that, and the mixed-result of Polk’s pledge when there were no term limits, there is no reason to bother pledging only one term from the onset.

Of note, Polk died only 103 days after he left office, which remains the shortest time for any President between exiting the Presidency and death. This is relevant because his death is commonly attributed to the stresses that he underwent in office while trying to do everything in four years; remember, he was the youngest to win a Presidential election at the time. Though he might have had cholera as well, it is possible that his poor health after leaving office contributed to a disposition towards contracting the disease in the first place.


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