President Polk: Our Greatest Ignored President


Reading Lions Of The West by Robert Morgan, I learned that many historians consider James K. Polk one of the most successful presidents in American history. I suppose this must be in a realpolitik way, since Polk was president during the time when America pretty much laid to rest all doubt as to how much of the mid-continent’s West we wanted… namely, all of it.

Polk was only a one-termer.  He died three months after leaving office, but apparently health concerns were not his reason for not seeking re-election.  According to another source I read some time back Polk agreed to serve only one term so that the bigwigs in his party who thought THEY should be president would support his candidacy in the hope that they wouldn’t have to wait too long for their turn.  Kinda the same reason that old Popes tend to get elected.

During Polk’s four years, he presided over the winning of the Mexican-American War (1846-48) and the establishment of the Northwest border with Canada via treaty with England.

I don’t think Polk is stressed in schools as much as other Presidents– especially other war-time Presidents– for the reason that Polk’s extension of U.S. territory was nakedly aggressive and all about land and power… very old-school and Europeanesque for a country proud of its New World attitude.

Plus, I think adults have a dangerous tendency to teach children about the world as they (the parents) WISH it could be, and not how it IS.  Our children are like our collective conscience, and we do not wish to look like jerks or fools in front of them.  As has been said, we are each the hero of our own story.  Just as with the individual personality, community is quite adept at the art of self-delusion.  When it comes to the hard truths about ourselves that we wish not to see, it’s easy enough just to choose not to see them.  We will go to great lengths to hang on to good-feeling delusions.

When we teach about a war president such as Washington or Wilson or FDR, we can sell that president (correctly or incorrectly) as a freedom fighter.  When we talk-up a president like Theodore Roosevelt, we can concentrate on his personal success story (the asthmatic kid who willed his way to strength), or we can highlight his non-imperialistic achievements, such as his (at least seeming) fight for economic justice and the Nobel peace prize he won for the Russians and Japanese to negotiate their war-ending treaty.

And then there’s Abraham Lincoln… the man who would become President less than fifteen years after Polk left office…

Lincoln was the last World Leader to be revered for the successful military subjugation of a people at the cost of hundreds of thousands of conscripted lives. After Lincoln, there would be other men who rose to power and sacrificed great numbers of lives for ambition and aggrandizement of the fatherland, but none would be viewed favorably by history.

Lincoln, who would gladly have left millions in bondage if he could have kept the southern states from seceding, is viewed historically as a great hero. By force of arms and heavy industry– and by the willingness to send millions of young men to their deaths– Lincoln kept the American empire from breaking apart (as it was believed and hoped by many across the globe that it would inevitably do). Nowadays, holding a nation together by force is viewed as immoral leadership. But times change, and moralities change with them.

But as for old Polk, his war neither freed slaves nor conquered any Nazis. His seizure of territory was done for the old fashioned reasons and in the old fashioned ways… for land and power, using brute force and hard-ball diplomacy. Even his personal story is not very child-friendly… a lawyer and career politician who largely cruised to the Presidency by playing the game the way Andrew Jackson and his de facto national political machine demanded.

Also, I wonder if Polk’s accomplishments were undermined by his own political machinations. America’s greatest generals during the Mexican War were Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott. However, Polk was a Democrat and both Taylor and Scott gravitated toward the Whig camp, so Polk worked very hard to make sure their exploits never sounded TOO heroic. But every good war needs its heroes. Take away the heroes, and history starts to yawn and look away.

Considering that Polk led the nation during the pre-Lincoln morality, I don’t disparage him as much as some do.  Although I do find it silly that, according to Morgan, Polk thought that the Mexicans should have paid a hundred million dollar war indemnity for the privilege of going toe to toe with the rising U.S. power.


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