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James K. Polk by John Seigenthaler


Rating: (Recommended)


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If pressed, I might have remembered that James K. Polk, the 11th American President, led the war with Mexico to acquire California. Thanks to John Seigenthaler’s contribution to the excellent American Presidents series, I know even more about James K. Polk. This short book will give you a quick look into someone Harry S. Truman thought was an outstanding president because of how much he accomplished. Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of Chapter 5, “Measures of a Great President,” pp. 102-109:


For forty years, George Bancroft, the gifted historian who served as Polk’s secretary of the navy, would remember that moment early in the new administration when Polk, with uncharacteristic animation, shared with him four specific goals that would make his presidency meaningful and memorable. These achievements, Polk believed, would address the immediate and long-term eco­nomic and expansionist needs of the nation. They would combine substance and symbolism; pragmatism and vision. These, he told Bancroft, would be his “great measures”:


• He would lower the tariff It would set the tone of his administra­tion and send the message to the nation’s working agrarian middle class that this was their administration, not subservient to the powerful eastern industrialists.

• He would re-create Van Buren’s independent treasury. It would bring an end to the financial control of the nation’s funds in pri­vate banks. The government would secure the people’s money. He preferred to call it a “Constitutional Treasury Act,” perhaps to put his own new imprint on an old idea and perhaps hoping the name change would make enactment more digestible to Whigs.

• He would acquire Oregon from the British. The time had come. The westward expansion demanded it. He would have to make a strong, direct demand that the British end their shared control of the territory. It would be land governed solely by the United States. He was prepared to draw a line in the great Northwest and deny Great Britain any right to rule the lives of U.S. citizens. He would make “Manifest Destiny” more than a catchphrase for the national dream. He would make it a mandate.

• He would acquire California from Mexico. This was to be a conti­nental nation, stretching from ocean to ocean. Mexico would not give up the territory for a song. He would have to pay a dear price for it, but it would be worth it. He would end forever the danger of European intrigues and meddling in the country’s domestic affairs.


All of this he intended to do in four years. In Bancroft’s mind, there was no wishful fantasizing here. Polk understood the limits of power, the hostility of the Whigs, the dissension and jealousy in his own party, and the intransigence of Great Britain and Mexico. Still, Polk believed he would do it all. A little more than a century later, Harry Truman published his list of eight great presidents and listed Polk, chronologically, behind Washington, Jefferson, and Jackson.

“A great president,” said the thirty-third chief magistrate of the eleventh. “He said exactly what he was going to do and he did it.”


For four years there would be no rest for James Knox Polk. He was an obsessed workaholic, a perfectionist, a micromanager, whose commitment to what he saw as his responsibility led him to virtu­ally incarcerate himself in the White House for the full tenure of his presidency. He rarely went out to visit. Sometimes he took a walk, usually to attend church with his wife. On very rare occa­sions he took a horseback ride for exercise. He almost never attended a social function and took vacations only when Sarah convinced him that his health demanded it.

At forty-nine, the youngest president was operating in a world he knew well, surrounded by veteran power brokers of his own party: Calhoun, Benton, Cass, Woodbury, and Buchanan. They were men with enormous egos and matching ambitions. Not one of them had lost the fire in the belly, nor surrendered his own dream that one day he would occupy the exalted position that had come to Polk. The new president had made no promises or deals. In his mind, his only real debt was to Andrew Jackson—and he owed him everything. With all of this in mind, he told Cave Johnson: “I intend to be myself president.”




Some ten days after he knew he had won, Polk traveled with Aaron Brown, Tennessee’s governor-elect, from Nashville to the Hermitage for a discussion with Jackson about naming his cabinet and plotting the success of the administration. They talked about the need for a harmonious cabinet—six able, knowledgeable politicians who together would help Polk lead the administration, true to the principles of the Jacksonian Democracy. Loyalty would be the first requisite. Names, no doubt, were mentioned, but no decisions were reached and Polk left without making any commitments. Of one thing he was certain. He would not make the mistakes that had led to the cabinet debacle in Old Hickory’s administration.

As to personalities, Calhoun, as Tyler’s secretary of state, was a special problem. He had launched the initiative on Texas for the Tyler administration and wanted to remain to finish that job, but he carried too much nullification baggage. He would have to go. The president-elect would not have admitted it, perhaps not even to himself but he was going to be his own secretary of state. He was focusing already on the difficult and delicate business of acquiring California from Mexico and Oregon from Britain. He would want someone overseeing the State Department who was the antithesis of Calhoun; someone Polk could control.

There were natural questions on the mind of the president-elect as he approached the task of cabinet making. Should he wipe out the entire Tyler crew of advisers? Francis Blair was demanding in his Washington Globe that the new president clean house. The other option was to select a cabinet whose members included one or more possible successors, so that Polk could have in place a trusted candidate to succeed himself at the end of his term. Jeffer­son and Jackson, his ideological role models, both had done just that. Jackson now advised Polk, “Keep from your cabinet all aspi­rants to the presidency.”  Perhaps Old Hickory realized that his own knighting of Van Buren had caused deep and enduring schisms in the Democratic party. Polk accepted the advice and required from his cabinet officers a pledge that they would not campaign for any office while in the administration.

When the time came to let Calhoun know that he would not remain as secretary of state, Polk personally delivered the bad news. He wanted a completely new cabinet, he said, and offered the nullifier the post of minister to Great Britain. Calhoun said he understood, took the news affably, but declined the offer to go to London. He would soon be back in the Senate, his affability notably less in evidence.

Having told the sitting secretary of state that he would clean out Tyler’s cabinet, Polk promptly reneged and appointed his old classmate John Y. Mason, Tyler’s secretary of the navy, as his attor­ney general.

He selected Cave Johnson, his closest friend, as postmaster general and George Bancroft, who had made such a difference in the convention, as secretary of the navy. Robert Walker, the Mis­sissippi senator who had been so helpful in guiding him through the drafting of the ambiguous tariff statement during the cam­paign, was to be secretary of the Treasury.

Here were four men he knew to be able. They were respected leaders of his party, and their loyalty to him was beyond question. Skilled in politics and committed to the success of his administra­tion, they would bring a wide range of expertise to the cabinet table. From these men he could expect honest, informed opinion and straightforward advice in a collegial atmosphere. Among them there would be no chance of the tension and anger that per­vaded the Jackson cabinet.

Only one of the four, Bancroft of Massachusetts, brought geo­graphic diversity to the inchoate cabinet, and Polk relied on his choices for the State and War Departments to provide a balance that would show his administration to be truly “national.” Both selections would cause him trouble.

New York, the state that was widely credited with giving Polk the presidency, was expected to provide the man for the top cabi­net job, secretary of state. Van Buren anticipated that he would be asked by Polk to recommend one of his New York allies, Silas Wright or Benjamin Butler, for that assignment. Having lost the nomination to Polk at Baltimore, the former president could have gone back to New York and sulked in defeat. Instead, he rallied his friends to help deliver his home state’s crucial electoral votes to the Tennessean. As a result, he felt entitled to recommend the per­son to head the State Department.

The new president had other ideas. He knew Van Buren’s New York associates. They were tough-minded, strong-willed, and remained extremely close to Van Buren. Polk wanted a secretary of state whom he could guide and control. He would not seek him in New York.

Acknowledging at least some debt to the former president, he requested that Van Buren recommend names for secretary of war, rather than secretary of state. Disappointed, the former president accepted the invitation and began to consult with Wright, New York’s newly elected governor, who told Van Buren he was not interested in returning to Washington in any role in the Polk administration. Van Buren gave the president’s request long and studied consideration (too long and studied, as it turned out), and finally wrote a letter promoting Benjamin Butler or Churchill Cambreleng as war secretary. At the same time, Van Buren warned Polk that there was one New Yorker who, under no circumstances, should get the job: former governor William Marcy. To appoint Marcy to the cabinet would he “a fatal mistake in this state,” Van Buren said. The virus of factional politics infected New York as Tennessee, and Marcy had fallen into disfavor with Van Buren. Whether it was impatience or arrogance or both, Polk did not wait for Van Buren’s letter of recommendations to arrive at the White House before he named his secretary of war. And he proceeded to make the “fatal mistake.” He selected Marcy and later claimed that he was unaware of the friction inside the Democratic party in New York.

It was an unforgettable and unforgivable cut that Van Buren deeply felt. It gave him and his New York Regency colleagues every reason to think Polk an ingrate. The president, for his part, felt no twinge of guilt. He may have suspected that the Van Buren crowd was not really serious about the recommendations of But­ler and Cambreleng, since Van Buren’s letter was hardly a prompt response to a presidential request. He may have heard that Butler, like Wright, had been less than enthusiastic about returning to Washington to serve in the administration. At any rate, while a measure of cool courtesy defined the ongoing relationship between the president and the former president, the bad feelings persisted. More than two years later, while traveling through New York on a presidential tour, he turned down a chance to visit Van Buren at his home in Kinderhook. The invitation was not sincere, Polk said, and had been extended by the former president only because Van Buren feared “public opinion.”

For secretary of state, Polk selected James Buchanan, the Penn­sylvania senator who one day would become president. Of all his cabinet appointments, this, the top one, caused Polk the most grief Vice President George Dallas, himself from Pennsylvania, implored Polk not to give the job to Buchanan. The Democratic party in Pennsylvania, as in New York and Tennessee, was torn by factionalism. If Marcy’s appointment was a political slight to Van Buren, Buchanan’s designation as secretary of state was a political slap in the face to Dallas. Polk meant it when he said he intended himself to be the president, and he disregarded Dallas’s plea.

The Buchanan appointment is intriguing because of what Polk certainly knew about the Pennsylvania senator. There had been a bizarre performance by the Pennsylvanian almost twenty years earlier when Buchanan was a newly elected congressman. At the time, preliminary reports of the “corrupt bargain” were circulating in the Washington gossip mill but had not been consummated. Buchanan called on Jackson to propose something close to a cor­rupt bargain of his own. Jackson was warning his friends that “cor­ruption and sale of public office” were about to take place when Buchanan showed up to confirm Old Hickory’s worst fears. Robert Remini described Buchanan’s conduct: “He kept winking at Old Hickory as he spoke. . . . Jackson stared in disbelief at the. . . fidgeting little busybody. Everything he had related to. . .his other friends about intrigues and plots now stood twitching before him.”

Buchanan led Jackson to believe that Clay’s agents had sent him as their messenger, to say that the Kentuckian wanted to be secretary of state. If Jackson would assure Buchanan that Clay would get the post, it could “end the presidential election within the hour.” Old Hickory sent him packing. Shortly afterward, when Adams appointed Clay secretary of state, Jackson exposed his strange conversation with Buchanan as proof that he had rejected the corrupt bargain Adams had made. Then, in a gasp of humilia­tion, the Pennsylvania congressman explained that he had not acted as Clay’s intermediary but on his own initiative. Jackson concluded that Buchanan was either a charlatan or a liar.

After that odd incident Buchanan went on to become a power in Pennsylvania politics, and Polk knew that he had worked hard to deliver his state to Jackson in 1828. Old Hickory forgave Buchanan that quirky introduction, though he never forgot it. As president, Jackson rewarded Buchanan with a two-year ministe­rial post in Russia hut later said, “It was as far as I could send him out of my sight. . . . I would have sent him to the North Pole if we had kept a minister there!”

Polk did great things, and with Seigenthaler’s help, readers will come to appreciate him better on the pages of James K. Polk.

Steve Hopkins, March 23, 2004


ã 2004 Hopkins and Company, LLC


The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the April 2004 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: K Polk.htm


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