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James Polk

Up until this morning, all I knew was that he was a 19th-century president, the 11th, in fact. Now I know all sorts of scintillating tidbits:
* NC-born, TN-raised James Knox Polk was elected to the U.S. Congress at 29, where he served for 14 years, including two terms as Speaker of the House.
* He was the Democrats' dark horse candidate in 1844, when more well-known candidates Martin Van Buren, John C. Calhoun, Lewis Cass, James Buchanan and Thomas Hart Benton couldn't muster enough support. He beat out the Whig candidate Henry Clay by promising to encourage westward expansion. He favored Texas statehood and the acquisition of the Oregon Territory. "Although critics expressed concern that aggressive expansionism might lead to a war with Great Britain or Mexico and might destroy the tenuous balance between free states and slave states, a majority of Americans accepted Polk’s vision of a continental nation" (from the website of the James Polk Home & Museum).

* During his single term (a campaign pledge), 1845-49, Texas became the 28th state, America annexed the Oregon Territory (Fifty-four Forty or Fight!), the Mexican-American war resulted in Mexico ceding New Mexico and California, and an independent Federal Treasury was established.
* He believed that the greatest threat to republican government was the growing power of money and of a "moneyed aristocracy." In a speech in the House, Polk warned Americans against what he called the "despotism of money," and predicted that if not checked, the power of money would soon "control your election of President, of your Senators, and of your Representatives."
* His wife, Sarah, is credited with starting the use of “Hail to the Chief” as the presidential anthem. She outlived her husband by 42 years, making her the longest widowed first lady in American history.

He is consistently ranked very high in polls of presidential greatness. In his own day, he was vilified by Lincoln and Grant, which unsurprisingly made him unpopular for generations. Harry Truman said Polk "exercised the powers of the Presidency ... as they should be exercised"; he knew "exactly what he wanted to do in a specified period of time and did it, and when he got through with it he went home." He died of cholera three months after leaving office.

Update: My friend Barbara emailed me that this post resonated with her, especially the Truman quote about Polk's using his presidential powers well. "Growing up in a military family, I heard how awful Truman was, especially because of his firing MacArthur. It took E. T. Crowson, my American history prof in college, to disabuse me of that notion. He said Truman 'saved the office of the presidency' in letting MacArthur go. So, Truman's admiration for Polk made sense."

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