James Knox Polk
      from The US–Mexican War by Carol and Thomas Christensen
Copyright © 1998 by KERA-TV, Dallas/Fort Worth/Denton

homeward bound



James K. Polk was president in an age that transformed the United States into a major continental power; he was commander-in-chief in a war that extended its boundaries to the Rio Grande, the Pacific, and the forty-ninth parallel. Yet Polk was little loved by his contemporaries and little noted by history.
    The reasons lie in Polk's policies and personality. Polk's "Jacksonian economic agenda," says historian Sam W. Haynes, "which called for a low tariff, firm opposition to internal improvements, and a hard money doctrine, was one that many Democrats were beginning to find ill-suited to the demands of a sophisticated marketplace, and [this] had much to do with his unpopularity."
    Not only "dogmatic in his political views," says Haynes, Polk was also "stiffly formal in his political relations … grim, humorless … provincial in outlook and tastes." "Seldom," observes historian Thomas Hietala, "had a president achieved so much so quickly; seldom had a president alienated so many men so completely." Hietala describes the puritanical Polk's advent on the Washington political scene:

Polk dreaded social gathering, and in one of his first acts as president banished dancing from the white House. He maintained a strained cordiality during his ceremonial duties, but people were a distant second to politics in his affections. In early 1846, Senator [John] Fairfield [of Maine] admitted to his wife: "Tonight the president has his first levee. I had rather be whipped than go, but circumstances render it unavoidable. There will be no dancing and no refreshment of any kind"

    Polk was the youngest man the United States had ever elected president, forty-nine at his inauguration. Born to an old North Carolina family, he had moved to Tennessee as a boy, later graduating from the University of North Carolina. Polk then developed a successful law practice and married Sarah Childress, whose stern religious principles matches his own. She managed his early political campaigns and was well known in Washington for her intelligence and charm.
    The ambitious Polk established himself as a loyal Democrat, first as a member of Congress, then as speaker of the House, later as governor of Tennessee. Andrew Jackson's protégé, Polk was known as "young Hickory." He dedicated himself to Jackson's vision of continental expansion and "derived great strength from his unshakable faith in Jacksonian precepts, which allowed him to focus his considerable energies on specific, clearly delineated objectives," writes Sam W. Haynes.

Despite his long political career, Polk had little skill in the art of compromise and negotiation. "As a good Jacksonian," says David Pletcher, "he brought to the White House the conviction that the president must dominate the government." Although he had not received a majority of the popular vote, Polk viewed his election as a mandate and seemed surprised when Congress did not bow to his will.


"Tonight the president
has his first levee.I
had rather be whipped
than go."


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