James K. Polk

 

 

Why Close the Office on Polk’s Birthdate?

I get questions from people who visit my web site and want to know why Roger Ruhl Marketing Communications closes on November 2 in honor of President’s James K. Polk’s birthdate. I wish I had a good story to explain this, but I don’t. I simply like Polk.

When Arthur Schlesinger conducted a survey of fellow historians about the most effective presidents in 1948, Polk (1795-1849; president 1845-1949) ranked 10th out of 28. When he repeated the survey in 1964, Polk had moved up to eighth among the 31 presidents. As the ranks of former presidents have swelled, Polk continues to rank in 8-12 range. And yet no one knows him. Those ahead of him in the rankings are well known … Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt, Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Truman. Reagan and Kennedy sneak into some lists. But Polk remains on historians' lists and relatively unknown. He has been called the "least known consequential president."

He was a sickly child when his family moved from the Carolinas to Tennessee. He was studious. He was a hard worker … a workaholic, said some. He had great attention to detail. Fellow Tennessean Andrew Jackson was his mentor. After successful terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, he returned to his native state and was elected governor. He lost two successive tries to retain and recapture the office, and his political career seemed dead in 1844. He hoped to be selected as the Democratic-Republican Party’s long shot vice-president nominee. When the dust settled, he was the presidential nominee. And when his opponent Henry Clay vacillated on issues in the presidential campaign, Polk found himself President of the United States.

During the campaign, he found popular appeal in saying he would not seek a second term (though he didn’t say he would not run if asked). He took office with four goals, and he accomplished all of them.

Texas annexation. Like his mentor Jackson, he favored western expansion. Texas accepted annexation in the last days of President John Tyler’s term, but the move led to the Mexican-American War. The result was that the U.S. paid $15 million to Mexico (the same amount paid to France for the Louisiana Purchase) for Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.

The Oregon Territory. Present-day Oregon and Washington were in dispute with Great Britain. The popular “54-40 or fight” slogan notwithstanding, the dispute was amicably settled with border line at the 49th parallel, a natural extension of the Louisiana Purchase territory.

The National Bank. While Jackson had opposed a national bank in favor of state banks, Polk felt the Panic of 1837 demonstrated the need for a more over-arching controller of the country’s financial destiny.

The Walker Tariff. A schism between the North and South existed over trade issues. The North wanted tariff protections for its manufacturers. The South wanted no tariffs in order to benefit its agricultural exports (cotton, tobacco). Polk managed an acceptable compromise.

Besides accomplishing the four major goals he set in his campaign, Polk oversaw the opening of the U.S. Naval Academy and the Smithsonian Institution, the groundbreaking for the Washington Monument, and the issuance of the first postage stamps in the United States.

 

The issue of “nullification” (the right of a state to nullify or refuse to accept a federal law) that had confronted Jackson did not surface in Polk’s term, but the underlying feud over slavery continued to simmer and would boil a decade later. Some fault Polk for not confronting the issue.

Polk left the Presidency ready to return to his beloved Tennessee. He took a circuitous route by water … not the rugged horseback ride he had made many times in his Congressional days. When he arrived, he was tired. He died of cholera 103 days after leaving the Presidency at age 53.

So, why do I like Polk? Maybe because he was a no nonsense guy who got things done.  He said what he proposed to do, he did it, and then he went home.  Or perhaps it’s because he seems to be a refreshing antithesis of today’s politician/elected official.