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  • James Wheeling

Polk’s Presidential Campaign and Personal Motivations

Comparing the 44th American President with James K. Polk, the 11th , makes for an

interesting study. Both share enormous ambition, dedicated work ethic and the ability to be quite divisive as they implement their election platform’s agenda. Both idolize Andrew Jackson, Polk from his personal relationship and Trump from his historical perspective. Both made Mexico a focus of their campaign promises, one promising annexation of Mexico’s lands into the United States, even if it meant war, and the other promising a wall to manage immigrants coming across the same created border without permission, for which both men faced withering public criticism. And both are considered “dark horse” presidential winners, Polk as the first in America’s history and Trump as the most recent. We are all pretty familiar with our current president’s activities so I’m going to share my research about President Polk.

Before I begin, I need to share that while researching President Polk via on-line resources and other documents, the resource I found that rocked my world was the book, Blood and Thunder, by Hampton Sides. While Mr. Sides’ book focuses on Kit Carson, his research is impeccable and, specific to my story, what he shares about James K. Polk is very insightful. I encourage anyone interested in this historical period to read Blood and Thunder, it is a great work!

Born in North Carolina, Polk studied law at the University of North Carolina and entered politics as a young lawyer by serving in the Tennessee legislature before representing Tennessee at the U.S. House of Representatives, where he would eventually become Speaker of the House. He left Congress to become Governor of Tennessee but became the leading contender for the Vice-Presidency in 1844 when Martin Van Buren and Henry Clay were battling it out for president.

Polk had Andrew Jackson as a major supporter and made his platform about expansion, Manifest Destiny and annexation (or re-annexation) of Texas and Oregon. Sensing the nation’s mood, Polk strategically pitched the annexation of Texas to the southern states, the popular Oregon issue with the North states and finally, tossed in the idea of acquiring California from Mexico. Oh, and he promised he would accomplish all of this while only serving one term. With this platform, Polk became the Democratic presidential nominee and ultimately beat Henry Clay by only 41,000 votes to become the 11th President of the United States on March 4, 1845.

He set four mandates for his administration: re-establish the Independent Treasury System (Van Buren’s was abolished by the Whigs), reduce tariffs, acquire some or all of Oregon Territory, and acquire California and all its ports from Mexico. He also stated he would only serve one term, needed minimal staff and Cabinet members and worked 10-12-hour days stating that “…no President who performs his duties faithfully and conscientiously can have any leisure.”

In my story’s research, I found Polk and his ambitious vision for America’s future an interesting case for the idea of single-term presidents. In my lifetime, a single-term president meant the population didn’t think enough of the fellow to re-hire him for the job. In Polk’s case, he went into the proposition with goals and objectives knowing what he wanted to achieve and doggedly, almost ruthlessly, went after them.

Case in point that bears directly on my story: The more I read about Polk, the more formed my opinion became that he so badly wanted to conquer Mexico’s northern holdings, including California, that he stretched the facts to fit his agenda, a little bit.

In the fall of 1845, President Polk sent Brigadier General Zachary Taylor to the Rio Grande River in Mexican-held Texas with the instruction to not let any Mexican incursion happen north of the Rio Grande River and to do his best to avoid provoking a war while preparing to, ultimately, be in one. In December 1845, Polk’s diplomat, John Slidell, arrived in Mexico City with $30 million (just shy of a billion dollars in today’s money) intending to offer it for New Mexico and California along with securing Mexico’s agreement to the Rio Grande border with Texas.

Just a month later, in January 1846, Polk ordered Brigadier General Taylor to leave his current position at Corpus Christie and proceed to the Nueces Strip (an area in south Texas between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande), which Polk knew would poke the Mexican bear.

Mexico never entertained Slidell to hear Polk’s offer. When Polk heard Slidell’s news, he was offended, calling it, “an ample cause for war.” By this time, Taylor had arrived and made his camp across the Rio Grande from Matamoros, Tamaulipas. When the Mexican general in charge demanded Taylor return to the Nueces, Taylor blockaded Matamoros. The resulting skirmish killed twenty American soldiers and fundamentally started the Mexican-American War in April, 1846.

This was all Polk needed – American blood had been spilled on American soil. But had it, really? It seems like things got a little convoluted, a push here, a nudge there. It feels a little like Polk picked the fight. Anyway, he made his case to Congress, had a little pushback from his detractors, but ultimately got the declaration of war with a 40-2 approval vote.

The Mexican-American War became increasingly expensive and unpopular with some Americans when they learned of Polk’s ulterior motives, namely acquiring more Mexican territory than he had originally outlined. There was a lot of back and forth political gaming between Polk and Taylor’s Whig party, a major dispute about the status of slavery on any acquired lands, which cost Polk’s Democrats the House in 1846, and various resolutions introduced to force Polk to prove the “exact spot” where American blood had been shed on American soil (introduced by Abraham Lincoln, a young senator from Illinois). All of it was messy business. But how different are our shenanigan-filled politics today?

Finally, on February 2, 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed which gave the Americans almost all Mexican holdings west of the Rio Grande River (modern day California, Texas, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico) for $15 Million (the small piece which became far southern Arizona and far southwestern New Mexico, known as the Gadsden Purchase, finished the job).

But for the purposes of my story, take a moment and imagine being Polk in August, 1848. The war is over but the controversy and political drama kept going. Polk got a special surprise delivered to the White House. In September, he announced to Congress the discovery of gold in California and showed off the rather large gold sample, known now as the Marshall Nugget, that had been his earlier surprise. His detractors had all said that California was too far away to be of any use to Americans, not worth the price tag paid to Mexico for it. But for Polk, it was vindication. When he made his final address to Congress in December, 1848 he made no fewer than three references to the importance of gold being found in California to the expansion of the nation westward. The California Gold Rush was on!

He left Washington on March 6, 1849, exhausted from four years of arduous labor. He and his wife were headed to Polk Place in Nashville by way of a Deep South swing beginning from the Atlantic Coast. He caught a cold in Alabama and feared it was cholera when one of his fellow riverboaters died from the disease. Unable to reroute away from New Orleans, which had become a red-hot cauldron of cholera bacteria, they were very cautious but were still heartily celebrated and banqueted by the local populous. Once in Nashville, he rejuvenated and seemed to be regaining his vigor when, on June 12th, he fell ill again, cholera the culprit. He lingered for three days until finally passing on June 15th.

Also important in my story is what happened to Zachary Taylor, the 12th president and Polk’s political adversary. While still disputed, exactly what killed him only 16 months into his presidency, it is generally agreed that cholera, either in the water or milk he drank, had once again reared its ugly head. The governance fell to Vice President Millard Fillmore. When Taylor’s entire Cabinet walked out, Fillmore faced the difficulty of putting together his new government and making it functional in weeks instead of months.

It is easy to be anachronistic when comparing men, historical events and their respective motivations. I found the similarities in the two presidents intriguing. While Polk was grim, sullen and tight-lipped, one doesn’t have to look far to see his exact opposite in our White House now. Both demonstrate a tireless work ethic, boundless ambition and the ability to draw level-headed individuals into a fist fight. Imagine if Polk would have had a Twitter account!

In the end, Polk has been deemed one of the most influential presidents in American history for his achievement of opening up the West for American settlement. My recurring question still is, would the West have been populated so quickly if gold hadn’t been found in California? It makes a case for kismet.

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