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James K. Polk: The Best President Americans Don't Know

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
October 30, 2023 3:00 am

James K. Polk: The Best President Americans Don't Know

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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October 30, 2023 3:00 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Official Texas State Historian Monte Monroe, as well as Rachel Halversen and Anne Clare, tell the story of President James K. Polk, and why his one term in office managed to beat out most presidents who served two.

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Bose That's the story of someone who might not have seen the world but played a huge role in creating the one we live in today. Here's our own Monty Montgomery to get us into the story of this math major turned lawyer turned president.

Let's get into the story. Polk is very forgettable. At least in a personal sense. He's not very fun and he's not very scandalous in the way that Jackson is. Jackson really kind of sucks all the air out of Tennessee politics. But Polk really doesn't get enough credit because he's absolutely the most effective one-term president. Most people are shocked to learn that Polk adds more territory than the Louisiana Purchase during his presidency.

Polk is unmatched. Nancy Polk is born November 2nd of 1795 and he's born in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. He is not baptized as a child because you have to have a confession of faith from both parents, which is very shocking. His mom, Jane, is related to John Knox, so she is like the Presbyterian and is very devout. And it's interesting that she ends up with his father because he's a deist.

You certainly see that Jane influences Polk's religious kind of outlook, though he also would consider himself, I think, a deist for a lot of his life. I think one thing to underscore about Polk's early life is that he's very sick, stuck in the house, not able to travel much, not able to do a lot of physical things. And he finally has surgery for gallstones or bladder stones when he's about 16 or 17. And that's this really terrible account of surgery where he's given brandy and they cut through his pelvic floor to remove these stones. So you have to imagine that he's traumatized by that.

But after that, his health does seem to improve. His dad's a justice of the peace and he's a pretty prominent resident here in Columbia. He builds the first two-story brick residence in town. He's fairly wealthy. He's a land surveyor, owns tons of land.

So that's how the Polks are able to acquire Middle Tennessee and West Tennessee land. And what's so interesting about Polk is that he's not well-traveled. He's very isolated in this kind of eastern seaboard of the United States, but that does not stop him from having this huge vision of what America should be. He adds all this territory that he never even sees.

And so it's interesting that he so strongly believes in the idea of America as this kind of power that stretches from sea to shining sea, but he never goes there. You know, I always describe Polk as the hand of Jackson, almost his entire political career, even into his own presidency. It's just kind of finishing what Jackson started. Tennessee, for wealthy white men at the time, was not a big pool. You know, it wasn't a big state.

There weren't that many. And so they're kind of all in each other's spheres of influence at the time. James' father was accruing wealth and gaining prominence as James is growing up, so we assume that he and Jackson knew each other. Jackson's a very interesting character. You can see why people admired him at the time and even today.

He is like the self-made man, right? He's orphaned at a really young age. One of his brothers dies in the Revolutionary War. One of them and I think his mother both die from smallpox, and we think that Jackson probably had quite a bit of scarring from smallpox himself that he had painters kind of edit out of his paintings. He's fighting duels, he kills somebody in a duel, and you know, he doesn't have support.

He moves himself up the ladder, as it were. What really makes Jackson a national figure is the War of 1812 and the Battle of New Orleans, and that's when he brings a bunch of Tennesseans down to New Orleans. He wins the battle, and it's unbelievably decisive against the British, and he loses very few soldiers, and it's just incredible, but he really gets the love of Tennesseans then because he takes care of his men, really making sure that they all get there and get home. And so he really gets the name of this common man politician during that time, and the people that serve with him help perpetuate this ethos of like, oh man, Andrew Jackson is for us. And that's how he's catapulted to national politics, and as James Polk is moving up, I think that Jackson genuinely sees that Polk is going to be a star. You know, for all that we say, Polk is cold, and he's not effective. He is.

We shouldn't undersell him either. Jackson, you know, in 1824 he runs, and he wins the popular vote, and no one has enough electoral votes, so it goes to the House of Representatives, and John Quincy Adams is kind of so connected that he's able to sway the House to basically make him president. People are outraged because Jackson actually has the support of the people as they see it, and instead they get an elite. He's only elected because his father is a president. Jackson is so in control of Tennessee politics at that time, even though he loses the bid for the White House.

His mark of approval is what is needed. That's probably the very biggest thing that Polk has going for him to make it into Congress. Interestingly, Polk's first speech in Congress in 1824, even though he doesn't really believe it because you see him reverse it later, but he gives a speech to abolish the Electoral College because of what happens to Jackson's first bid for president. So you can see kind of how unwavering Polk's support is even when Jackson has lost the presidency. His first speech is to talk about kind of undoing that. And you're listening to the story of a president you don't know but should, and that's why we love telling these stories, because no one else will. The story of James Polk, the story of Manifest Destiny, and you've heard those two words bandied about in some high school history class years and decades ago.

When we come back, more of the remarkable story of the man who helped make America, President James Polk, here on Our American Story. Folks, if you love the stories we tell about this great country and especially the stories of America's rich past, know that all of our stories about American history, from war to innovation, culture, and faith, are brought to us by the great folks at Hillsdale College, a place where students study all the things that are beautiful in life, and all the things that are good in life. And if you can't get to Hillsdale, Hillsdale will come to you with their free and terrific online courses.

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Keep your ride or die alive at Eligible items only. Exclusions apply. And we return to our American stories and the story of our 11th president, James K. Polk. When we last left off, Rachel Helvering of the James K. Polk home in Columbia, Tennessee, was telling us about his early life. James was sickly, couldn't get out of the house much, but was exposed to the concept of the West by his father. He was also exposed to Andrew Jackson, a man who saw the potential in James and took him under his wing, supporting him politically. James would eventually become speaker of the house, but was soon recalled back to Tennessee to run for governor, something he didn't want to do.

Let's return to the story. This must have been the lowest point of Polk's career because he's in Washington. Sarah Polk is with him, you know, they never have kids.

She's up there living a great life. They rent extra rooms and she's hosting parties and he's moving his way up in national politics. But Tennessee is slowly slipping and Jackson no longer has control and the Whig party has gained all this momentum. And so Jackson asks Polk to come back and run on the Democratic ticket to basically help shore up Tennessee support. And he does. And I think he only does because Jackson asked him to. And he does win the first time. And you get the sense from his letters that he in no way is loving this run.

You know, he and Sarah are corresponding. She's basically his campaign manager and you can you get the sense that he's doing it out of obligation and not because he really wants to be the governor of Tennessee. And he's not successful because he is elected for one term, but he loses. He runs two more times and he loses both times to lean Jimmy Jones, a very talented orator and kind of comic contrast to James K. Polk because he's everything James K. Polk is not. He's kind of glib. And James even makes statements about basically like, I'm the serious politician and the one that understands what needs to be done. And he's not getting elected.

The people aren't seeing that he in his mind should be elected to these offices. We don't know exactly when Sarah and James met. She was one of the rare women at the time that was given a very good education by her father. There's not a lot that we know about kind of their courtship. We do know that Jackson very much liked Sarah and kind of pushed Polk towards her.

And we don't really know if it was a love match. There is a quote that is kind of an oral tradition that Sarah Childress said she would only marry Polk if he went on to serve in Congress, which he does in 1825. So I think that Sarah was probably pretty ambitious, too. And she recognized that Polk was a rising star, that he was very smart. But she's very calculated. She's very politically savvy. Polk doesn't like to really get into a lot of the politics in a nonprofessional way.

You know, he doesn't want to try and court members of Congress over dinners at the White House. And Sarah does that. And she organizes it all. So she knows kind of what is needed to give him authority and respect.

And she goes about it. One of the things that Sarah Polk helps establish, she doesn't establish it, but she helps establish Hail to the Chief being played when the president comes in. Because she feels like Polk comes into parties and people don't know that he's there because he doesn't really care to make an entrance.

So she starts having that played every single time, which is important. It shows her devotion to Polk's political career. But before Sarah could popularize the playing of Hail to the Chief for her introverted husband, he had to be nominated. Unlikely for someone who had just lost two elections in his home state, the home state of Andrew Jackson, the Democrat. But before the days of primaries, anything could happen.

And in 1844, it did. The Democratic convention is going on. He's not even there, which is interesting. And I don't know that he is even actively kind of throwing his name in the hat, but the Democratic Party is extremely divided and they really can't decide on who they want. This is why really Polk becomes the dark horse candidate is where that term comes from, because in a lot of ways he's given up his career in Washington.

The career here in Tennessee is failing and he's just kind of not sure what's going to come after. And he becomes a little bit of a compromise candidate. This is where his one term comes from. He says, if you elect me and I get elected, I'll just serve one term and then you guys can figure out the Democratic Party can figure out who they want to replace me.

And they go for it. And he gets a vote. I argue that if somebody ran with a similar platform today, that they would win. Who doesn't want a president that's going to run one term, is going to accomplish some really huge goals, and then is going to leave office and leave public service, which is Polk's intention is to he's going to retire. So he runs on 54, 40 year fight, which is to say that we're going to settle this dispute over the Oregon territory.

Here's Anne Claire, one of our regular contributors with more on that. Multiple countries had sent explorers to the Pacific Northwest coast of North America. These explorers laid claim to territory in the New World. However, as there weren't markings on property lines, Britain and the fledgling United States ended up with overlapping claims. Both nations had reasons why they felt their claim was more legitimate. Britain and the United States had already agreed to set their borders from Minnesota to the Rocky Mountains along the 49th parallel.

Why not, moderate American voices asked, agree to just keep the same line all the way to the Pacific. As the debate wore on, some American voices clamored that a border on the 49th parallel wasn't enough land anyway. So he runs on 54, 40 year fight, which is to say that we're going to settle this dispute over the Oregon territory. In other words, he called for a border that went up to 54 degrees 40 minutes, which would extend the United States border all the way north to Alaska or thereabouts or else. He basically says he's going to settle that dispute, that he's going to settle the Texas question. He's going to annex Texas, basically is what he's promised. A lot has happened in Texas. The Mexicans fight against the Spanish rule and gain kind of their independence. Very quickly out of that, Texas decides to break away. I like to jokingly say Tennessee is the mother of Texas because I think there's 30 Tennesseans who died the Alamo. Here's Monty Monroe, the official Texas state historian, with more. Their grievances centered on the rights to religious freedom.

In other words, you didn't all have to be Catholics. The right to religious freedom and the fact that Mexico had failed to establish an education system. They were interested in their right to bear arms, their right to a trial by jury versus a military tribunal, which was called for in the Siete Leas. So they make this remarkable break politically with Mexico. So it seems like this kind of fight for freedom that the American people are very invested in. And you've got Americans from all over steadily pouring into Texas. Sarah Childress's nephew goes to Texas and helps them write their Declaration of Independence when they're breaking off from Mexico. So you can see where people have romanticized the idea of like a second revolution and helping somebody else gain their independence. In a lot of ways, we kind of see it already as our territory. In Van Buren's presidency, I believe it's Van Buren, the Mexican government basically says, if you annex Texas, we're going to immediately go to war.

And that's part of the reason presidents and Americans have not acted on it. But overall, Polk kind of rides that national support for Texas annexation. And predating Polk, though it becomes very synonymous with his presidency, is manifest destiny.

This notion that Americans were God's chosen people and that they were to spread their culture and religion across the North American continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific. And Polk capitalized on that sentiment. Polk is ultimately elected, and he was elected by an overwhelming majority. And that mandate, that electoral mandate, gives President Tyler, and you have to remember, at that time, sitting presidents remained in office till March. Polk's election and that mandate allows President Tyler, or encouraged him, to prompt Congress to pass a joint resolution on February the 28th, 1845, a simple majority resolution to annex Texas. And President Tyler promptly signs the measure on March the 1st, right before he goes out of office. Polk is going to be the one to carry that out.

And when we come back, more of the story of our 11th president, James K. Polk, after these messages. Then, the Colts face the Patriots. And he's got it! So set your alarms. Game time! Then rise, shine, and watch two Sundays full of football.

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Let's return to the story. Polk does everything when he takes office. His entire start to finish term as president is like a marathon that he treats like a sprint. Here again is Monty Monroe, the Texas state historian.

He claimed that he would bring in Oregon, Texas and California into the union in response to these mounting sentiments in the United States of so-called Manifest Destiny. He is so ambitious and he is so dedicated. He's such a workaholic. And he's extremely detail oriented to the extent that the people that are working for him and around him are kind of eye rolling. You know, he says his favorite day of the year to work is on Christmas Day because he can get so much done and nobody bothers him. We have records where he's working over 18 hours a day and he says he wants to be basically involved in every aspect of government. He doesn't trust his subordinates to do everything correctly. So he's going to be involved in everything. He immediately starts going after all of his goals. Great Britain, he immediately starts going back and forth with them about our northern border.

Here again is Anne Claire. However, once he was in office, President Polk wasn't really feeling the fight part of his slogan anymore. You get the sense that he doesn't actually want to go to war with Great Britain. He does want to go to war with Mexico, but I think he knows that Mexico is attainable and he really doesn't want to go back against the British Empire. So he is more amenable to settle that dispute, which they eventually do with the 49th parallel and the acquisition of more territory than just, we say, Oregon.

But it's a big swath of territory on the West Coast. The last president of the Republic of Texas at that time was Dr. Anson Jones. He convenes a constitutional convention. They draft a state constitution, which Texas voters approve by a two-to-one margin in October. And ultimately, in December of 1845, elections for state officials are held.

Anson Jones becomes the last president of the Republic of Texas. There's a fear by the Mexican governments of land hunger of the Americans because of manifest destiny and this desire to acquire California. The U.S. wanted California for its natural harbors.

They believed it would make the United States a strong Pacific power and open Asian markets to the United States. President Polk knew that Mexico had severe financial problems, so he sent Slidell. John Slidell, that is, the namesake of Slidell, Louisiana, and the United States minister to Mexico. To try and purchase California, which only had about 3,000 Mexican citizens living there at the time, Slidell met with the current Mexican president at that time, Jose Herrera, who stated that Texas was the key issue. If the U.S. would return Texas to Mexico, Mexico might consider selling California to the U.S. That didn't happen, and it couldn't happen. Ultimately, Herrera is overthrown. President Mario Paredes comes in.

He refuses to talk to Slidell. Slidell returns to the U.S. convinced that military versus diplomatic means was the only way for the U.S. to achieve its goals, particularly in relation to the Mexican-controlled, what would become the American West. When Polk learned of Slidell's failure, he immediately sends General Zachary Taylor, old, rough, and ready to move to the Rio Grande. Of course, the United States and Texans had always believed that the Rio Grande was the southern border because Santa Ana was forced after the Battle of San Jacinto to retreat below the Rio Grande, and it was stipulated in the Treaty of Alaska. The Mexicans, of course, never ratified that treaty, so old, rough, and ready Zach Taylor, he goes down, and he starts building fortifications on the Texas side of the Rio Grande. Mexico claimed that Taylor's move was an invasion of Mexican territory, and on October 24, President Paredes declares a defensive war against the U.S. and Mexican troops, a skirmish with Taylor's troops, and Taylor wires Polk that war exists. It's not the first war that West Point graduates fight in, but it is the first kind of big one. And so you get people like Lee Grant, Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis is fighting.

You have all these kind of West Pointers in this war, and they're getting experience, and it's really the first big test of West Point graduates and how they're going to work. Following the war and as a consequence of the border now being secure, settlement increases dramatically in Texas. With the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, we gained so much territory at a very low cost.

I mean, $15 million, even in today's standards, that's a deal. The security of having kind of all of this territory from sea to shining sea is unmatched, and I don't know that we could have survived as a country without having kind of the land mass. America's future would have been untenable. It's kind of similar when we talk about the Civil War. What would have happened if the South had broken away?

I mean, I think America would have been over, and I think this is a similar situation. I think it's hard to think of another future for America that wouldn't have involved kind of this land presence and command. The gold rush is announced right at the end of his presidency, and you can see him kind of realizing that it's going to change the course of the country. And it also kind of validates him and his ideas of westward expansion before he leaves office and then eventually dies that he knows, like, okay, it was worth it because, look, we've already uncovered these natural resources in the land that we kind of fought and argued over.

So I don't think he created the Wild West, but I think he made it part of the United States. You know, we had no term limits then until after FDR served for a long time. Most presidents did not go past two terms, which is what George Washington said.

So it's kind of an honor system that you'll retire after so long. But I think because Polk is so young that he wanted to be clear he wasn't going to move in and stay forever. You know, he wasn't going to sit in that office until he died. And then you get the sense very much as he's wrapping up his presidency, he is ready to retire.

He is exhausted. And so he kind of throws all that he has into this one term, and then he's thinking he's going to come back home and kind of live this quiet life. I don't think he would have liked a quiet life, but he at least is kind of saying, oh, man, I can't wait to come home and relax. So you get the sense that he was also happy to be done after his one term. It is the shortest retirement of any president, right around 100 days.

There had been this huge flood in Middle Tennessee, and all the wells had flooded, and all this dirty water has permeated all over, and so people are dying of cholera like crazy. And all this to say he's buried with no ceremony, essentially, the first time. Now, Sarah does dig him up and have him reburied maybe six months after he dies. And she gets William Strickland, who's like one of the most prominent architects at the time. He's in Nashville building the state capitol, and so she commissions him, and he builds a grand tomb. And at that point, they have kind of the more grand funeral that we would associate with a presidential funeral. Sarah sees that as being really important because, you know, her husband was the president. They have a procession through Nashville and reinter him on the grounds of Polk Place, their house, right on the front lawn, honestly. I mean, it's almost just by the road because Sarah wants him to kind of get that attention, and that's really, the rest of her life is devoted to kind of perpetuating the legacy of James. And a special thanks to Rachel Helvering, who works at the Polk Home in Columbia, Tennessee, Monty Monroe, the Texas State Historian, and Ann Claire, who's a regular contributor. And what a story about a man with ambition in one term promises to do one big thing, and that is assure America's ownership of land from coast to coast.

The story of James K. Polk, our 11th president, here on Our American Story. Sunday's full of football. The NFL Frankfurt Games.

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