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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 394

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This is the grave of James Polk.

Born in 1795 in Pineville, North Carolina, Polk was the oldest of 10 children born to middling farmers. They weren’t particularly wealthy at that point–the reconstruction of the cabin in which he was born looks like a shack to me–but they were a slaveholding family at the same time. This wasn’t too uncommon, as farmers at that level would often invest in slaves over fine goods or even a decent house, as that was the key to upward mobility in southern society. The fine house could come later. Polk’s father was a deist, but his mother was a hardcore Calvinist and that is how Polk lived his life, much to the chagrin of a lot of the people who would later deal with him. The family moved to Maury County, Tennessee in 1806 and that is where Polk would base himself for the rest of his life. Polk was a pretty bright kid and was admitted to the University of North Carolina as a sophomore in 1816. He graduated in 1818 and returned to Tennessee. He studied law under Felix Grundy, one of Tennessee’s top political and legal figures, became clerk of the state Senate, and was welcomed to the bar in 1820, where his first case was defending his father from a charge for public fighting, hardly surprising given the violent culture among the plantation elite, where the Polk family now belonged.

In 1823, Polk won election to the Tennessee House. He won in part because he served booze as his rallies, even though he did not drink. Although Polk came from a Federalist family, he started moving by this time into being a follower of Andrew Jackson, who was also a family friend. Polk cast the critical vote to break a tie in the legislature to send Jackson to Washington as a senator in 1823. Jackson certainly did not forget the young man and Polk became known as “Young Hickory” for being so close to Jackson. The following year, Polk himself went to Congress, only 29 years old. His first speech was beating the bogus Corrupt Bargain horse between John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay and calling for the abolition of the Electoral College, which to be fair, is a good idea, then and now. Polk became Jackson’s man in Congress on both opposing internal improvement bills and on the Bank War. At first, Polk was sympathetic to John C. Calhoun’s secessionist position on the tariff, but he switched very quickly when Jackson came out against it. In 1833, Polk became chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, where he supported Jackson’s ridiculous withdrawal of federal funds from the Bank of the United States, which laid the groundwork for the Panic of 1837. Jackson then went all in with congressional interference to get Polk elected Speaker of the House in 1835, calling in every political chit he had to push out John Bell. Polk was instrumental in pushing through and enforcing that Gag Rule that disallowed discussion of slavery on the House floor. He would routinely shout at John Quincy Adams breaking that rule, leading even Jackson to argue that Polk needed to show more political leadership and less screaming. On the other hand, unlike many of his predecessors, he never challenged any other congressmen to a duel. The level of violence in Congress is not well known today but it was a routine part of life, culminating in Preston Brooks’ brutal beating of Charles Sumner in 1857. He resisted efforts to repeal the Specie Circular, Jackson’s 1836 decree that all government lands must be paid for in gold, which again reinforced the economic problems of the Panic of 1837.

All of this led to Polk winning the election for governor of Tennessee in 1839. It wasn’t much of a job as the position held little power, but Polk had presidential ambitions. He hoped to get the VP nod in 1840. See, Martin Van Buren’s VP, Richard Johnson, was in an open relationship with a black woman and was trying to get his biracial daughters introduced into polite society, scandalizing the South, which certainly didn’t oppose sex between white men and slaves, but rather the legitimizing of that sex. But Johnson was popular in the North and he remained on the ticket. Moreover, the Whigs were in the ascendant. They won the 1840 election, embarrassing Polk, who then lost reelection for governor in 1841. He returned to his law practice and got ready for 1844.

Everyone thought Van Buren would be the presidential candidate again in 1844, so Polk wanted to be the VP. But politics changed drastically between 1840 and 1844 because John Tyler had placed the expansion of slavery on the national agenda and all of a sudden, the South would not support anyone who did not support this. Van Buren was a strong believer in the Jacksonian politics of sweeping slavery under the table. Jackson felt it was time for this to end too and so he pushed for Polk, albeit quietly. After a very messy convention when it became clear Van Buren could not win the nomination, machinations led to Polk winning. He went on to defeat Henry Clay in the fall. The popular vote was extremely tight but the electoral college was not thanks to Polk winning New York.

Polk had four clear goals for his presidency and won them all. First, he wanted to reestablish the Independent Treasury System that the Whigs had abolished. Pushing terrible Jacksonian banking ideas was awful, but he did it. However, this did finally settle the nation’s banking questions for a long time. The law Polk signed without a single Whig vote called for the nation to keep all its money in its own treasury, which definitely contributed to the nation’s frequent financial problems, but remained the law of the land until the establishment of the Federal Reserve in 1913. Second, he wanted to lower the tariff. This was always a tough task, but doing so probably did lead to a significant increase in U.S. trade with Britain, although it is hard to separate that out from the impact of the repeal of the Corn Laws there. Third, he wanted to take over the Oregon Country. That he did despite some significant tensions with the British and extremists wanting the U.S. to also conquer British Columbia, which would have led to war. Truth was that while the British were highly annoyed by the influx of American settlers, they had trapped out all the beavers and other fur-bearing animals in the territory, saw the writing on the wall, and figured modern Oregon and Washington wasn’t worth a fight. Fourth, and most importantly, Polk wanted California.

That last goal defines Polk’s presidency. Because he was all-in on slavery expansion and of course a slaveholder himself, he decided to recognize Texas’ ridiculous land claims that extended to the Rio Grande, when everyone knew the border of Texas was the Nueces. He annexed Texas with those boundaries, infuriating Mexico. With James Buchanan as Secretary of State, the doughface of doughfaces, American foreign policy was to be expanding for slavery no matter the costs. Polk hoped to avoid war by sending John Slidell to Mexico City to offer a pittance for everything that would soon be stolen in the Mexican War. Mexico rejected this outright. Polk had Zachary Taylor take his troops south of the Nueces. When Mexico attacked, Polk outright lied to Congress, stating that Mexico had “shed American blood on the American soil.” As has happened so often in American history, Congress initially lined up behind these lies, fearful of being seen as anti-patriotic, and war with Mexico was declared. When Polk’s lies were discovered, a lot of northerners were outraged, including Henry David Thoreau, who famously refused to pay taxes to support an unjust war to expand slave lands. In August 1846, Polk asked for more money to annex Mexican lands. This was not part of his war message and many felt outrage over this new facet of the war. Polk then hamstrung Taylor’s actions because he feared the general becoming too politically popular, the sort of political interference in a war effort that is terrible regardless of the justification for the war itself. Mexico continued to refuse to sell its northern lands and finally Polk had to have Winfield Scott fight his way through Mexico to conquer Mexico City. Only at that point did the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo lead to the theft of the northern half of Mexico to expand slavery. This was hardly the end of Polk’s ambitions. He sought to increase the American presence in what is today Panama to ensure Britain would not build a canal and he sent envoys to Spain to try and buy Cuba, which would have ensured the U.S. was a slave nation for a very long time. Spain had no interest in this of course.

At the beginning of his administration, Polk had pledged to serve only one term. So, in 1848, he declined renomination and Lewis Cass became the Democratic nominee. But Van Buren, furious for Polk and the other southern leaders stealing the nomination from him in 1844, ran on the Free Soil ticket, splitting the Democratic vote enough to hand the election to Zachary Taylor. Polk returned to Tennessee and dropped dead in June 1849 of cholera, which was sweeping the nation at that time. This may be apocryphal, but Sam Houston, who was no fan of the non-drinking Polk, supposedly said he was “a victim of the use of water as a beverage.”

Polk is often seen as a very good president. But it depends on how one defines that. Yes, he had clear goals and he accomplished them. OK. But those goals were also morally abhorrent and economically bad. Jacksonian ideas about banking were disastrous. Avoiding war with Britain over Oregon, OK, fine. But the Mexican War? I simply cannot see anyone who led that disgusting moment in American history, one that materially moved the nation closer to the Civil War, as anything worth praising. We can say Polk was an effective president, but I do not believe we can say he was a good president.

This is of course also the grave of Sarah Childress Polk. Like most wealthy antebellum wives, she remained mostly in the background of her husband’s career, but she did help him write speeches and was very interested in politics. She nearly derailed her husband’s career by joining in the shunning of Peggy Eaton by Washington’s elite wives, but Jackson spared him the ire he showed others over this. She was notorious as First Lady though because she refused to allow alcohol served at White House functions, which made her extremely unpopular with both other Washington power figures and most definitely international representatives to Washington. Polk left her with a lot of land and slaves, but the money started disappearing immediately. She had to sell the plantation before the Civil War and of course lost the slaves with emancipation. In 1884, Congress granted her a $5,000 pension until her death, which took place in 1891.

James and Sarah Polk are buried at the Tennessee State Capitol, Nashville, Tennessee.

This grave visit was supported by LGM reader contributions. Thank you very much for allowing me to see this grave and profile Polk. If you would like this series to cover other people discussed in this post, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Felix Grundy is buried in Nashville and Richard Johnson is in Frankfort, Kentucky. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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