Today in 1795, future United States President James Polk was born. A Tennessean protégé of Andrew Jackson, he was one of the most influential politicians of his era, and arguably the most successful president in terms of actualizing the agenda he set forth to accomplish.
As a young man, Polk rose through the ranks of his state’s political apparatus, and became a delegate to the Tennessee House of Representatives. He became known as a fantastic public speaker, and was called the “Napoleon of the Stump.” In 1824, he was elected to the US House of Representatives, where he established a political alliance with those that opposed John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, and the proto-Whigs. During the Van Buren administration, he was made Speaker of the House, where he gained a reputation as a workaholic and became one of the chief architects of Democratic policy.
After Democrats lost the governorship of Tennessee in 1835, Polk set decided to run for the same office in 1839. In an extremely close race, he defeated incumbent Newton Cannon. Though he was generally unsuccessful in transforming Tennessee back into a bastion of the Democratic Party, he had become one of the most eminent politicians of the South and was well regarded in his own party. In 1841, his aspirations for reelection were defeated by frontiersman James “Lean Jimmy” Jones.
Polk won the Democratic nomination for president in 1844 after a series of unexpected events. In the same year, Martin Van Buren was broadly considered the frontrunner to carry his party’s nomination. At that point, Polk had no presidential aspirations and maintained a strong friendship with Van Buren, but was open to being selected as the New Yorker’s running mate.
After Whig presidential nominee Henry Clay announced his staunch opposition to Texas annexation, a hot-button issue, Van Buren followed with his own circular letter doing the same. Stunned at this, Jackson and other prominent Democrats believed that no candidate could win the presidency while opposing the addition of Texas to the union. While other figures in the party also had presidential aspirations – including John Calhoun and Lewis Cass – but Jackson was convinced Polk was best choice. Not only was he a zealous Democrat and long-time friend, the former president understood that Polk’s support of Texas annexation was a popular cause that would make him stand out in a national election.
Despite Jackson’s support, Polk thought the plan was madness. Nevertheless, he agreed to go along with it with Jackson’s support. When widespread opposition to Van Buren materialized – primarily for his rejection of Texas annexation – Polk was overtly pointed to as a “compromise candidate” that could unite the entire party. Even so, Polk himself expressed his support for Van Buren. In the end, Polk won his party’s nomination, and handedly defeated Clay in the 1844 presidential election through a coalition of southerners and northern Democrats that opposed Clay.
As president, Polk spearheaded a successful effort to reduce tariffs to incredibly low levels, kept the United States out of war with Britain despite his own campaign vitriol, and helped build an independent treasury system that was incredibly free – throwing off the continual attempts of the Whigs to institute a re-chartered national bank. At the beginning of his presidency, he completed a hard-fought quest started by Virginia John Tyler when he finalized the Texas annexation.
In 1846 came the most controversial matter of his presidency, the Mexican-American War. In the run-up, Polk did not usurp war power to pursue a war with Mexico, as is sometimes suggested. Although he clearly favored war, he deferred to Congress to make that decision and carried out its execution only after it decided in the affirmative. Prior to the war, the president sought only to defend the borders secured by Texas’ agreement with Santa Anna, a routine military excursion that was practiced throughout the world.
Although the Mexican government refused to ratify Santa Anna’s treaty, the country amusingly went beyond this, laying claim to all of Texas in 1846 and sent a raiding party into a contested region. There, a cavalry detachment killed a full American patrol and then boasted about their exploits – a highly incendiary set of events that basically guaranteed war with the United States. Rather than placing the blame squarely on Polk for igniting a war, Mexican aggression against independent Texas was largely responsible.
Polk exited his office having realized almost the entirety of his political vision. Even so, he was notably exhausted after his tenure. He planned to retire in Nashville after a tour of the South in 1848. In the process, he picked up an illness but seemed to recover before reaching Nashville to a gallant procession. Even so, he fell critically ill again – likely due to cholera – and died the on June 15. His wife Sarah outlived him by 42 years, and remained a popular host in their Nashville home, where she donned black garb for the rest of her life.
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