[Paleopsych] Wayne Lutton: James Knox Polk: Forgotten as One of Our 'Greatest' Presidents
checker at panix.com
Mon Jan 24 21:52:59 UTC 2005
Wayne Lutton: James Knox Polk: Forgotten as One of Our 'Greatest'
Posted Nov 24, 2004
This past year's election campaign and the death of President Ronald
Reagan prompted journalists and scholars to once again rate our
Presidents. Aside from George Washington, "greatness" tends to depend
on a particular commentator's ideological bent. Next to our first
President, Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Truman and Kennedy are most
often cited as "great"--perhaps reflecting the bias of those
participating in the surveys.
If you believe presidential "greatness" should be based upon personal
character, the attainment of a positive agenda for the country, and
the ability to lead during wartime, then our 11th President, James
Knox Polk, surely deserves to be ranked among the very greatest. In a
recent addition to the American Presidents Series, James K. Polk:
1845-1849, John Seigenthaler, former editorial director of USA Today
and founder of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University,
has written a concise and highly readable biography of this shrewd and
decisive commander in chief.
Polk was born in Mecklenburg County, N.C., and grew up in Tennessee,
where his grandfather and father "imbued him with the principles of
Jefferson," as famed historian George Bancroft, who served in his
cabinet, pointed out. His mother, Jane Knox Polk, was a descendant of
the same John Knox who launched the Reformation in Scotland and her
piety was an enduring force in his life. He was sober, honest, and
hardworking. Later, after his marriage to Sarah Childress, James Polk
and his wife paid for a pew in the Presbyterian Church and throughout
his years in public life they regularly attended Sunday services.
James nearly died at the age of 17, when forced to undergo emergency
surgery for urinary stones. The author describes the operation he
endured, without general anesthesia or antiseptics to prevent
infection. In Seigenthaler's estimation, "the boy became a man on Dr.
McDowell's operating table. Here, for the first time, were evidences
of the courage, grit, and unyielding iron will that Whigs, the British
Crown, and the Mexican army would encounter once he became President."
After his recovery, James attended a series of Presbyterian academies,
where he excelled in Latin, Greek, literature, logic, philosophy and
geography. He entered the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
in 1816, at a time when it was dominated by its Presbyterian
president, Rev. Robert Chapman. Polk was an outstanding student and
earned the privilege of giving the commencement address at graduation.
Polk then studied law in the office of Felix Grundy, a noted criminal
lawyer who had served as a state legislator and chief justice of the
state supreme court, passing the bar exam in June of 1820.
As a young man, Polk rose rapidly from the Tennessee legislature to
the U.S. House of Representatives. There he was twice elected speaker
as a principal supporter of "Old Hickory" Andrew Jackson, his
political mentor. Polk returned home to run for governor of Tennessee.
This was seen as a springboard for a future run for the presidency.
However, he served only one two-year term in the statehouse, being
twice narrowly defeated for re-election. By early 1844, James Polk was
considered to be politically dead. No one would have bet that by the
end of the year he would be the newly elected President.
The author is at his best when describing how Polk became the surprise
candidate of the Democratic Party. Former President Martin Van Buren
was favored to run against the Whig candidate Henry Clay. At the time,
American public opinion overwhelmingly favored admitting the Republic
of Texas to the United States. But in an amazing misreading of popular
sentiment, both Van Buren and Clay issued official statements
declaring their opposition to welcoming Texas into the Union.
"Remember the Alamo!" still reverberated in the hearts of American
patriots and Texas President Sam Houston was a revered figure. Dubbed
"Young Hickory" by former President Andrew Jackson's supporters, who
managed his campaign, Polk won his party's nomination and defeated
Clay in the general election. At the time, he was the youngest man
ever elected to our highest public office.
Polk pledged to serve only one term. This freed him to push ahead
without focusing on re-election. He had four goals: To fund the
federal budget while lowering tariffs (then the main source of
revenue); to restore an independent national treasury, taking public
deposits out of the too often corrupt hands of private banks; acquire
the Oregon Territory from Britain; and welcome Texas and California
into the Union. He achieved the first three objectives in his first
year and a half in office, a truly remarkable accomplishment.
Liberals have sought to define Polk's presidency by the Mexican War of
1846-1848. Then and now, his critics claimed that Polk deliberately
provoked war with Mexico in order to acquire Texas, New Mexico, and
California. Seigenthaler tends to take a middle view. It may simply be
that he is less familiar with this chapter of American history.
There is no doubt that Polk wanted to extend American sovereignty from
coast to coast. However, there is no evidence that he started a war
with Mexico to get it. By 1846 Texas's independence had been
recognized by the United States, England, France, and other nations.
California was already lost to Mexico. The real question was which
country would control it: England, France, or the United States. Polk,
trying to avoid war, dispatched John Slidell to Mexico City with an
offer to purchase New Mexico and California.
War broke out in 1846 primarily because Mexican President Mariano
Paredes, who seized power in a military coup in early 1846, thought a
war with the United States could be easily won. The Mexican Army
dwarfed that of the U.S., with 27,000 regular troops against an
American army numbering only 7,200. The Mexicans were better armed and
better trained. President Paredes boasted that he would see the "Eagle
and Serpent" of Mexico floating over the White House. British and
French military observers predicted an easy victory for Mexico.
In April 1846, President Paredes ordered his commander of the Army of
the North to "commence hostilities, yourself taking the initiative
against the enemy [the U.S.]." On April 24, 1846, General Mariano
Arista sent 1,600 cavalry across the Rio Grande to attack American
forces on the northern side of the river. Later that day, a Mexican
force cut down Captain William Thornton and 60 American dragoons, and
"American blood was shed on American soil." (For those interested, the
best treatment of this period remains Seymour V. Conner and Odie B.
Faulk, North America Divided: The Mexican War, 1846-1848, Oxford
University Press, 1971.)
Seigenthaler relates how President Polk had to battle not only the
Mexican Army but his leading generals, Winfield Scott and Zachary
Taylor. Both were outspoken Whigs who would themselves run for
President (Taylor was elected after Polk). Fighting against the
Mexicans with a small army of regulars and state militia volunteers
across broad deserts, where problems of supply hampered operations,
America's armed forces performed brilliantly--including our Pacific
Naval Squadron, which kept the British Navy from seizing Northern
Polk spearheaded America's westward expansion, while securing his
domestic agenda. Despite his achievements, Polk left office amid a
firestorm of antiwar attacks. The stress took such a physical toll
that he died just three months after the end of his term.
Today, few Americans can even identify James Knox Polk. We can thank
John Seigenthaler for writing an admirable portrait of a President who
deserves to be far better known and appreciated.
More information about the paleopsych