36. James K. Polk

Were this a ranking of presidents who most successfully accomplished their agenda, James K. Polk would likely be first on the list. Polk, a Democrat who so followed in the footsteps of Andrew Jackson that his contemporaries called him “Young Hickory,” ran on a platform of three basic ideas: 1) lower tariffs; 2) resolve a territorial dispute between the United States and Great Britain over Oregon (in America’s favor); 3) annex Texas. All of this, Polk promised, was to be accomplished in one term, after which he would retire.

In 1846, he signed the Walker Tariff lowering the tariff rates, accomplishing his first goal. He threatened war with Great Britain before forcing them to sell their portion of the Oregon Territory, completing the second item on his list. President John Tyler, after Polk was elected, urged Congress to annex Texas, which it did — Polk’s third goal was accomplished before he even stepped foot in the White House.

No other president was so singularly focused and so adept at making his agenda a reality. Alas, it was his war with Mexico that, more than anything else, exacerbated the sectional tensions that would eventually lead to Civil War.

11th President James K. Polk (1845-49)
11th President James K. Polk (1845-49)

As the United States invited Texas into the Union, it also invited Texas’s problems — namely, a border dispute with Mexico. Texas claimed its border extended all the way to the Rio Grande; Mexico placed the border along the Nueces River. Polk, sensing an opportunity to take even more land for the United States, stationed his troops, led by future President Zachary Taylor, in the disputed territory, in the hopes that some kind of aggression on the part of the Mexicans would give him reason to act. In late April of 1846, American and Mexican troops clashed, and Polk asked for and received a declaration of war — American blood was shed on American soil.

Map of the Mexican War
Map of the Mexican War

Because the war was such a smashing success — the war was won in 16 months and American received the disputed territory to the Rio Grande along with the California and New Mexico territories — it is easy to forget that this is the most imperialistic, least justifiable war in American history. Abraham Lincoln, then a Whig congressman, said as much, calling Polk’s efforts to convince the nation “the sheerest deception.” President Polk, he said, “feels the blood of this war, like the blood of Abel, is crying to Heaven against him… by fixing the public gaze upon the exceeding brightness of military glory—that attractive rainbow that rises in showers of blood—that serpent’s eye that charms to destroy—he plunged into it, and has swept on and on, till disappointed in his calculation of the ease with which Mexico might be subdued, he now finds himself he knows not where. How like the half insane mumbling of a fever-dream is the whole war part of his late message!”

(My apologies for the lengthy quote, but once one starts quoting Lincoln, it’s hard to stop.)

The war itself, taken on its merits, was unjust. But its outcome had dire consequences for the victors as well. The war added a huge amount of land to the United States, including what became the states California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado, as well as the disputed part of Texas. This all raised once again the issue of the balance of slave and free states in the U.S., which failed to be resolved by the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, or the Dred Scott Decision — only a bloody Civil War resolved the issue of slavery in the United States once and for all. This was not that difficult to foresee. “The United States will conquer Mexico, but it will be as the man who swallows the arsenic, which brings him down in turn,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in the midst of the war. “Mexico will poison us.”

It’s hard to blame Polk fully for this outcome, as it removes the agency of so many other people who did so much to bring about such an awful outcome. (Indeed, that is why I ranked three of his successors worse than him.) It is even more difficult still when one considers how one should think about this war. How should someone who believes this to be an unjust war (as I do) think about the obvious benefits of it? I come from California! Not one part of me thinks we should return the American Southwest to Mexico, and the patriot in me gets riled up when seeing an advertisement like this one.

What then can one do? Am I justified in criticizing men like Polk from the vantage point of the 21st century while enjoying the benefits of the decisions I am criticizing? I’m afraid I don’t have an answer to that.

It is without question that Polk’s was a consequential presidency. Thanks in part to a superb biography of Polk by Robert Merry, his administration has been en vogue recently, particularly among bigwigs in the Republican Party. (And there’s more than a hint of Polk’s Jacksonian nationalism in Donald Trump.)

There is, however, a question as to whether Polk’s was a good presidency. As difficult as it is to say, and with all of the caveats one can muster, the answer, in my opinion, is no.


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