Most people think of James Knox Polk as one of those old, random Presidents from the 1800s. And while he certainly didn’t have the long-lasting legacy of a Lincoln or Roosevelt or Kennedy, he is, I would argue, the most underrated President. I’ve always had a deep respect for him. I know more about him than any reasonable person should. I’d like to spend a few moments discussing his Presidency, because it really did shape the America we know today.
Polk began his campaign for President by announcing that he would only seek one term. He then laid out a very clear, rational agenda with three main goals. Number one: acquire land from Mexico and Britain. Number two: re-establish an independent Treasury. Number three: Reduce tariffs.
He went on to accomplish his full agenda and didn’t run again, because James K. Polk was a cool and decent man.
Let’s talk about land. At the time of Polk’s election (1845), the possibility that the US could become a huge, coastal nation was still uncertain. The Oregon Territory was under the joint occupation and control of the United Kingdom and the United States. Mexico owned much of the Southwest. Texas was still an independent sovereign country. But in Polk’s four years, the US acquired half of Mexico for a fee of $15 million*. He worked out a compromise with the Brits to acquire the whole of the Oregon Territory. And the US annexed Texas.
*They also had to win the Mexican-American War.
Look at this map below. You see that blue Texas region? That’s Polk. You see that pink Southwest region? Polk. You see the yellow Northwest region? Also Polk! Suddenly, the US had all of the land. Manifest Destiny was complete.
I suppose you could also look at this map and conclude that Polk was a brutal imperialist invader, but let’s not think about that.
OK, now let’s talk about the Treasury, because who doesn’t want to read about US fiscal policy in the mid-nineteenth century?
In 1846, Polk approved a law restoring the Independent Treasury System, under which government funds were held in the Treasury and not in banks or other financial institutions. Martin Van Buren had signed this into law in 1840, but it was quickly repealed by the Whig-dominated Congress. Curse those Whigs! Polk’s system entrusted the federal government to exclusively manage government funds and required that disbursements be made in hard specie, such as gold or silver, or in paper backed by gold and silver. The goal here was to avoid undue speculation in western lands as the nation expanded its territory. This was indisputably a success.
Let’s now talk about Polk’s third agenda item – reducing tariffs. A few years before Polk’s election, the Whigs* enacted the famous Black Tariff, an increased tariff that led to a sharp decline in international trade. In 1843, imports into the United States nearly halved from their 1842 levels. Exports, which are affected by overall trade patterns, dropped by approximately 20%.
*Those darn Whigs, up to their old tricks again!
Polk wouldn’t stand for that. And so he worked with his Secretary of the Treasury, Robert Walker, to reduce the tariff rates. In delivering the proposal to Congress, Polk and Walker both successfully predicted that a reduction in tariff rates would stimulate trade, including imports. The result would be a net increase in customs revenue despite the reduced rates.
They were absolutely right. The Walker Tarriff was adopted in 1845, and trade increased substantially. Net revenue collected also increased, from $30 million annually under the Black Tariff to almost $45 million annually by 1850. It also improved relations with Britain that had soured over the Oregon boundary dispute. Excellent work, guys!
Manifest Destiny? Check! Independent Treasury? Check!! Lower tariffs and stimulated trade? Check!!! Polk went three-for-three, then bowed out gracefully. How cool is that?
Now, I must admit that Polk was not a perfect President. He was a slaveholder for his entire life, and he did not support emancipation. And that’s, eh, well, let’s not talk about that.
He also went on a bit of a power trip. After acquiring the Oregon territory and Texas and much of the southwest, Polk just kinda went for it and tried to purchase Cuba. He authorized his ambassador to Spain, Romulus Mitchell Saunders, to negotiate the purchase and offer Spain up to $100 million (an astounding sum at the time). Cuba was close to the United States and had slavery, so the idea was appealing to Southerners. However, Spain was still making huge profits in Cuba (notably in sugar, molasses, rum, and tobacco), and so the Spanish government rejected the offer.
But imagine if they had accepted? Cuba would be a state!
Polk’s final years took a toll on his health, and he died of cholera three months after leaving office. People have this weird obsession with the last words of a President’s life, and I’d like to take a moment to reflect on Polk’s last words, because they are really a thing of beauty.
Some last words, by the way, are really interesting. John Adams said, “Thomas Jefferson survives!” even though Jefferson had actually passed away several hours earlier.
Most are really depressing:
Ulysses Grant: “Water”
Chester A. Arthur: “Life is not worth living.”
Benjamin Harrison: “Are the doctors here? Doctor, my lungs…” Harrison died of pneumonia.
Richard Nixon: “Help.”
Polk’s was the best:
“I love you, Sarah. For all eternity, I love you.”
Dawwwww. Sarah was his wife. Good on you, James Polk. I bet the other Presidents are jealous.
Here are some other random facts about James K. Polk:
- Polk was elected at 49 years of age, and at the time he was the youngest President in American history.
- He was President during the gold rush in California.
- He is the only US President to have also served as Speaker of the House.
- Scholars have called Polk the “least known consequential president” of the United States.
- He was one of three Presidents who had no children.
- He was a great orator, earning him the nickname “Napoleon of the Stump.”
- He had the shortest retirement of all Presidents at 103 days.
- Along with George Washington, Andrew Johnson, Chester A. Arthur, Calvin Coolidge and Lyndon B. Johnson, he is one of six Presidents to have died while his direct successor was in office.
Polk’s legacy takes many forms, most notably in the form of Oh yeah, I’ve heard of that guy, I wonder what the K stands for. But he really did leave an extraordinary legacy. A third of this country’s land was acquired in his four years.
Take another moment to look at that map.
“To look at that map,” said the historian Robert Merry, “and to take in the western and southwestern expanse included in it, is to see the magnitude of Polk’s presidential accomplishments.”