Presidential Review–James K Polk

5 May


Polk–also known as Little Hickory (because he was modelling himself after Jackson)  and Napoleon of the Stump (because he was apparently a very good speaker.)  I would also nickname him the manifest destiny president, the darkest horse, and the mullet (my gosh, look at that hair, he’s like an aging 80’s rock star!)

The Darkest Horse–Polk broke nearly every rule that traditionally guides election cycles and running an effective presidency.  The big issue of the day was slavery, which was being fought through the Texas annexation situation.  Texas wanted to join the union as a slave state.  Abolitionists were directly against this, as there was a chance that Texas would be forced, through diplomatic relations, to end slavery if they just waited a little while longer.    In the primarys, Van Buren was running again and had a majority for the Democratic nomination–however Van Buren was against expansion, Jackson was against Van Buren, so the convention got deadlocked (Van Buren had a majority, but not the 2/3 majority he needed.)  Polk instructed his supporters to vote for Van Buren to keep the convention stalled until the powers that be had to broker an agreeable alternative–and they decided on Polk.  In the election, President Tyler got kicked out of his own party for being his disagreeable self, so it was between Polk and Clay.  Clay was expected to win, and probably would have, if there wasn’t a big abolitionist push due to Polk’s pro-slavery views, thus making a spoiler candidate of James G Birney.  Birney just got 2% of American votes, but had Clay taken that 2% he would have won.

That’s the thing with Polk–usually this level of triangulation does not work, there’s too many unpredictable elements at work, but he got away with it.    Also in becoming president he announced he would only serve one term.  Normally when it’s clear a president will have only one term, they lose power–congress just works around them, or waits them out–however with Polk, he somehow got more powerful and effective, because he was out of contention for the next election cycle.

No president exemplifies the manifest destiny more than Polk.  He wanted to increase America’s size, pure and simple.  While it would do very little to help with the slavery issue, Polk saw the west as a place that could balance out all the other issues that divided the North and South, making them a tiebreaker in issues like tariffs, land development, and domestic policy, thus making the country move more smoothly on divisive issues.   Whether or not this worked in practice in questionable, but it is an idea.

Polk engaged in a series of land-grabs that expanded the country by 1/3.  I’ll get into the Mexican-American war situation second–but the other big land increase was with Oregon.  The United States had a dispute with Britain over Oregon territory–how much was really included in the Louisiana purchase, who discovered what.  There even were some (frankly insane considering we had one war already) people who wanted to go to war over this.  In the end, Polk came to a mutually acceptable agreement which basically cut the Oregon territory in half.  Polk gets some credit for practicing restraint here.

I’m separating the Texas annexation from the Spanish American war because I feel differently about the two.  I actually have little problem with the Texas annexation–Texas was supposed to be an independent country,  they overwhelmingly wanted to be part of the United States, and really it wasn’t Mexico’s business.     If everything had stopped here, I would call it a very good exchange.  However, we also have–

The Mexican-American war–I have said that Polk is a very strong president, however, that does not mean I always agree with him.  The Mexican-American War is a definite candidate for dubious wars in history.  During the Texas annexation process, Polk sent ambassadors to Mexico to firm up what was supposed to be Texas borders and to  negotiate a sale of California and the south-west.  Mexican leadership made some really bad choices in all this–because they were angry about the Texas situation they basically found every excuse not to deal with the ambassadors, and then sent some troops over the Rio Grande into disputed territory.   This is bad bad stuff, but had the United States not been basically trying to have a war in the first place, there probably could have been some diplomatic answer to this stand-off.  The U.S. wanted war though, considered the crossing an invasion, and sent troops into Mexico.

The biggest problem with this war is that Mexico was nowhere near an equal to the United States militarily. They were close to a civil war without American intervention, with multiple factions vying for power.  Their military equipment was severely outdated (to give you an idea, they were still using muskets–which would be similar to a war being faught with tommy-guns today).   The military couldn’t even handle rebellions by private citizens (like in Texas, or the Yucatan, both places which started their own republics.)   Also, I believe that  by this point in his career, Santa Anna was practically out of his mind with megalomania and Napoleonic posturing.  In any case the United States cleanly won this war hands down.  In the end the U.S. got huge amounts of land for a fraction of the price it was worth.     I can give Polk some credit for not taking over all of Mexico (which some Americans apparently wanted–considering the stormy socio-political environment in Mexico, would have been considerable trouble).

While I don’t agree with the war, and I think the dealings around the war are somewhat sleazy, it was a very popular war, and Polk really was doing what most Americans wanted.   Also, when I think going to war to basically claim the California territory is extremely morally dubious, I can make a case that Polk resisted the land-greediness to a degree that was prevalent at the time.  He wasn’t willing to take over any and all territory at any cost–he made specific goals and went for them, and mostly succeeded.

For social issues, Polk gets a couple more plaudits.  He started the National Treasury System, so that the governments money wouldn’t be invested in banks, thus making a clear division between American finances and private commercial interests.  While modern politicians do not generally care too much about that division, I believe that keeping government money out of private industry makes for better political decisions.

He also vetoed any bill that was for land development.  I think there’s a case for the national government developing land, but I really see his point.  The national government really should be only investing in projects that benefit everybody, allowing the state and local governments to handle the more local issues.

Unfortunately, Polk is also more on the pro-slavery side than not, and so there’s a big minus for him.  However, he mostly side-stepped the issue as president, and left most things unchanged.

In the end I have to give Polk a lot of credit.  Yes the Mexican-American war was pretty sketchy, but if the United States had to be in a war like that Polk was a pretty good leader for it.  Also, the man was a near genius at achieving the goals he set, considering he only had 4 years to do that sets the bar even higher.   Of all the presidents between the founding fathers and the Civil War I think he’s probably the best, though that’s taking into account that I’m not as fond of Jackson as many are.

Well, next week we get Taylor, the president that conspiracy theorists talk about when they get bored of Kennedy and Lincoln.  Until then!

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