No president better captures the spirit of Manifest Destiny than James K. Polk. When he entered office, the United States had a disputed claim to Oregon, and that's about it. When he left office, the United States looked like the continent-spanning empire it is today..
Follow along as Polk revives his dead-end political career to shock everyone and win the White House, manipulates the United States into war with Mexico to steal the American Southwest, acquires the Oregon Territory from Great Britain through bold negotiation, and accomplishes all of his domestic priorities in a single action-packed term.
1. Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America – Walter R. Borneman
2. Zachary Taylor – John D. Eisenhower
3. John Tyler - Gary May
4. Heirs of the Founders – H.W. Brands
5. John Quincy Adams - Harlow G Unger
6. James Buchanan – Jean H. Baker
7. Abraham Lincoln – David Herbert Donald
8. Franklin Pierce – Michael F. Holt
Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/AbridgedPresidentialHistories)
You might be asking yourself, who is James K Polk? When Polk ran for president in 1844, that’s what everyone else wanted to know. Sure, his public career had started off well, speaker of the house, governor of Tennessee, but he was coming off two straight losses for Tennessee governor when he ran for president. What made him think he could win the nation, when he couldn’t win his state?
Well, two things.
First – Andrew Jackson wanted him to be president. That’s right! He’s still kicking, barely. This is practically his dying wish.
And Second – Polk was the only major candidate running who wanted to annex Texas.
As it turns out, that would be enough to make him the first darkhorse president in American history.
And the thing is, I’m surprised more of us haven’t heard of James K Polk, because this guy’s going to do a LOT. He’ll acquire Oregon from Great Britain through peaceful negotiation, he’ll take the American Southwest from Mexico through bloody war, and he’ll accomplish his domestic goals of lowering tariffs and establishing an independent treasury that will last for nearly 70 years – and he’ll do it all in a single four-year term.
By the end of this episode, you won’t be asking “who is James K Polk?” You’ll be asking, “why hasn’t everyone heard of him?”
James K. Polk was born on Nov. 2, 1795, in a North Carolina log cabin, but Tennessee is the state that would define him. His family moved there in 1806 when he was 11 and he left only for College, graduating UNC - the fightin’ tar heels – in 1818.
And from that moment forward, James K Polk was a politician for life.
Polk’s early years are fairly ho-hum, so I’m going to kind of speed through them, because there’s a lot to get to later.
In 1823, Polk was elected to the Tennessee house of representatives at the age of 27.
In 1824, he married Sarah Childress. They’d never have any children, possibly because Polk was sterile, but they’d be together the rest of his life.
And in 1825, Polk was elected to the U.S. House of representatives at the age of 29
Polk spent the next 14 years in the house – winning re-election 7 times – and serving as the speaker of the house – the most powerful member of Congress – his final four years. Polk was the speaker who allowed the introduction of the “gag rule” we learned about in John Quincy Adams’ episode. That was the rule that made it illegal for anybody – but mainly john quincy adams – to so much as mention the word “slavery” in congress. It was passed by southerners who were irate with Adams’ constant anti-slavery rhetoric.
But, perhaps most importantly from these years, Polk was quick to join the young Democratic party that took shape the late 1820s and he successfully campaigned for Andrew Jackson’s election in 1828.
And remember, Jackson rewards loyalty.
By the late 1830’s, Polk, the sitting speaker of the house, was starting to think the presidency would be more fun, but no sitting speaker had ever been elected president before, so Polk started thinking …
Maybe if he became governor of Tennessee, and if he helped the Democrats have a strong showing in that state, that would make him attractive enough to win a place on the Democratic ticket as President Martin Van Buren’s running mate in 1840. Because Vice Presidents could definitely become presidents. So Polk ran for governor of Tennessee in 1839, and won, and then began campaigning for vice president, as much with Van Buren as the rest of the party which would officially choose a vice presidential nominee at the Democratic convention in 1840. But Polk didn’t get the nomination. In fact, nobody got the nomination. The party convention couldn’t reach a majority for any VP candidate and decided it would be better to just avoid the fight, which was only going to upset the losers and their backers, so Martin Van Buren ran without a running mate in 1840 – making him the last presidential nominee to do so – and he ran with the understanding that the electoral college would pick the vice president on its own if Van Buren won the presidency. And this is interesting, because you may remember from my William henry Harrison episode that Van Buren’s first-term VP was very much part of the 1840 campaign, a guy named Richard Mentor Johnson – there was even a traveling play reenacting the claim that Johnson had personally killed the Shawnee war chief Tecumseh in battle during the war of 1812 – it was ridiculous, and I had to double check my notes to confirm, but I had not misspoke. Richard Mentor Johnson was part of the 1840 campaign, just, he wasn’t just running for Van Buren’s reelection, he was running for his own reelection in the electoral college as well.
Anyway, it’s interesting, but it’s also all moot because Van Buren lost in 1840, William Henry Harrison won, and then Harrison died and vice president John Tyler became president. Polk may not have won the Vice Presidency that year, let alone the nomination, but he had won some national name recognition, which he’d need in 1844, because the next few years would be very unkind.
In 1841, Polk, who, remember, was the sitting governor of Tennessee, lost reelection to a Whig named “Lean Jimmy Jones.” It was a fascinating campaign. The two rode around the state together, going town-to-town, and every town would greet them with a big party where they would debate each other. And then after those parties they’d spend their evenings engaging in letter-writing campaigns well into the night.
103,000 votes were cast in the election, and Polk lost by 3,243 – 3% of the vote.
This was not according to plan.
Two years later, Polk ran again for governor. He still viewed this as a must-win stepping stone if he wanted to be vice president, and later president. But he lost again, by another slim margin. As the presidential election of 1844 approached, Polk was a two-time loser who thought his political career was over.
So you can imagine how surprised Polk would be, if you’d told him right then, that he was about to be elected President.
Get ready for the first great dark horse campaign in American history – the election of 1844.
Let’s set the table real quick. There are three main contenders to know as we approach the election: President John Tyler; Whig party founder Henry Clay; and former Democrat president Martin Van Buren.
At the start of 1844, everyone expected the race to come down to Martin Van Buren and Henry Clay, but President John Tyler was hoping to play the spoiler. Tyler had been elected on the whig ticket, but was formally kicked out of the party when he kept vetoing whig legislation. As his term neared its end, he realized he had to do something crazy if he wanted to win reelection, so he decided to reach for the forbidden fruit that no other president had dared pursue – the annexation of Texas.
Texas was a huge republic that had won its independence from Mexico in 1836 and which wanted to be annexed by the united states, but it hadn’t happened yet for two reasons. One, Mexico was telling anybody who would listen that if the U.S. annexed Texas, it would be war; and two, Texas was a slave-owning republic, which meant the south was all about adding it as another slave state, and the north was totally against it. Any politician who annexed Texas would have a hard time finding any support in the north.
But Tyler realized he was poised to win exactly zero states, so he said fork it, and he began secret negotiations with the Texans and leaders in Congress to bring Texas into the union. He knew the north would organize to block Texas annexation if they saw it coming, so his goal was to quietly lock up the congressional support he needed so it could be introduced fait accompli, but he failed. Word got out, and annexation opponents blocked his annexation treaty. And that was that for John Tyler’s dream of running for reelection as the man who annexed Texas.
But that’s not the end of the Texas story. The cat was out of the bag. Texas annexation was on the table, and everyone in the country wanted to know if Martin Van Buren and Henry Clay supported, or opposed, the annexation of Texas.
Clay and Van Buren tried to avoid the question. They knew any answer would alienate half the country – you’re either going to piss off the north by saying yes or the south by saying no – but everywhere they went, people kept asking. So eventually they caved and, by a total fluke, Van Buren and Clay came out against annexation on the same day.
And that was Polk’s opening.
Because it’s time for Andrew Jackson to reenter the story.
A lot of southern democrats were pissed when Martin Van Buren came out against the annexation of Texas, but possibly nobody moreso than Ol’ Hickory himself. Jackson had always wanted to acquire Texas – he’d even tried to buy it off Mexico back in the early 1830’s when Texas was still part of mexico – and at 77-years old and fading fast, getting Texas now was kind of Jackson’s last wish.
So Jackson checked his rolodex of loyal supporters, saw Polk’s name, and wrote him a pair of letters. Jackson pitched Polk on the idea of running for president with his backing – the “young hickory” to Jackson’s “Ol’ Hickory” – and together they plotted the overthrow of Martin Van Buren and the reconquest of the Democratic party.
It started with the Democratic convention of 1844.
The way conventions worked back then are different from today. There’s no primary system where you campaign state by state to win that state’s delegates. Instead, the party in each state picked its delegates however it likes and sends those delegates to a national convention where the delegates first vote on the convention’s rules and then hold a series of votes until one candidate came out on top.
Polk was not the only Democrat hoping to beat out Van Buren at the Democratic convention of 1844 – and that was actually very important to his plan. Enough states had their own favorite candidates that Polk thought he could let them do the dirty work of opposing and preventing Van Buren’s nomination, and then when van Buren and all those candidates were good and angry at one another, Polk could emerge as a compromise candidate who had offended no one and who everyone could agree on.
And his plan worked.
It started with the rules fight. The supporters of those other opponents of Van Buren succeeded in writing rules that said a candidate needed a 2/3 supermajority to win the party’s nomination – not a simple 51% majority. So, of 266 delegates at this convention, you needed 177, instead of 133, to win the nomination. This proved decisive, as the first ballot resulted in 146 votes for Van Buren – a majority, but not the required super majority. The remaining 120 delegates went to a wide range of other candidates. Notably, zero votes were cast for Polk. Six more ballots were cast the first day of the Democratic convention, Polk appeared on none of them, and Van Buren’s delegate count went down every single time. Van Buren’s supporters realized things weren’t going their way and so they called for the convention to close for the night so they could regroup and come up with a plan for day 2. That night, Polk supporters and Van Buren supporters gathered to discuss how to get Van Buren nominated – because the Polk supporters were still pretending to be on Van Buren’s side – and the Polk supporters waited patiently for someone from the north to suggest, “hey, this Van Buren thing might not happen. Maybe instead of nominating a northern president, we should nominate a southerner like Polk, who has always been so supportive of Van Buren?” And Polk’s supporter’s immediately rallied around this idea.
The following day, New Hampshire became the first state to announce its support for James K. Polk, and the first ballot of day 2 ended with Polk ranked third of the numerous candidates with 44 delegates. And this threw everything into confusion. Most of the convention was like, what the heck is Polk getting all those votes for? The entire new York delegation left the hall to strategize, and when they returned, they threw their support to Polk, and then most of the convention joined in. Polk, who wasn’t even under consideration the first 7 ballots, won on the 9th ballot with 233 delegates to 29 for his nearest rival. [KR1]
Polk then influenced the party to announce the usual Democratic platform – no national bank, lower tariffs, a weak federal government and strong states rights – plus one new point. An important point. The Democrats were officially coming out in support of the annexation of Texas AND the Oregon territory. Polk was putting Manifest destiny on the ballot in his race against Henry Clay and a whig party that was at the peak of its national power.
And you might be wondering, what was that about the Oregon territory? If you remember back to episode 6 on John Quincy Adams, the United States has been jointly occupying the Oregon territory with Great Britain since 1818 – so almost 30 years by now. Polk was saying the joint occupation had to end. Oregon had to come under American control, and the British had to surrender their claim. And this promise to secure Oregon served as a carrot to any northerners who were concerned about annexing Texas, because it was like, no, I’m not just trying to get more southern slave-holding land, I’m trying to get some non-slaveholding territory in Oregon as well. So balance can be preserved.
But the path to the presidency was still perilous. President John Tyler may not have annexed Texas, but he was still running for reelection on a pro-annexation platform. And while it’s unlikely he’d win any states, there was a very real chance he could take enough votes from Polk for Henry Clay to win states that were hotly contested. So team Polk made getting Tyler out of the race their first priority, and luckily, this proved easier than expected. A few ego-soothing letters and state resolutions passed by Democratic-controlled states convinced Tyler the best thing to do for his legacy would be to leave the race, and he dropped out in August – three months before the election.
But Polk was still running as an underdog to Henry Clay. And this is where Polk was helped by some self-imposed mistakes by Henry Clay.
Clay had a narrow lead, but he was nervous his opposition to Texas annexation could cost him his southern support, so he wrote a series of letters to an Alabama newspaper trying to soften his opposition to annexation. Basically, he was trying to have it both ways. In the north, he was opposed. In the south, he wanted to appear open to it. But this totally backfired. Southerners saw him as an unprincipled flip flopper, and northern abolitionist saw him as an unprincipled traitor. A second own-goal was scored by Clay late in the race when his Whig party came out in favor of tougher naturalization laws – ie, laws making it harder for immigrants to vote. This drove any new immigrants straight to the Democratic camp. Suddenly, the race was neck-and-neck.
If there’s one thing the election of 1844 has in common with today, it’s the importance of battleground states. In 1844, the election came down to New York, and the presence of a nascent abolitionist party called the liberty party.
485,000 votes were cast in New York.
15,000 went to the liberty party.
232,000 went to Clay.
And 237,000 went to Polk – polk won New York by 1% of the vote. And with New York’s 33 electors, Polk won the presidential election 170-105.
As a young anti-slavery Whig named Abraham Lincoln put it, “If the Whig abolitionists of New York had voted with us last fall, Mr. Clay would now be president.” If Clay had won New York, he would have won the presidency, 141-134.
So 1844 isn’t just the first successful dark horse presidential campaign, it’s also the first campaign to be decided by the influence of a third party.
AND SO, on March 4, 1845, 49-year-old James K. Polk, the two-time loser who had been hand-picked by President Jackson to reconquer the Democratic party and the presidency on a pro-annexation platform, was sworn in as the 11th president of the United States.
Let’s take a look at the world, and the country, he inherited when he entered the white house.
Domestically, Democrats controlled Congress, which meant Polk would have a friendly legislature for enacting his policies and aims. Texas was also on its way to officially joining the union, as outgoing president John Tyler had pulled a fast-one and tricked Congress into letting him annex Texas three days before he left office. So after running for president on a pro-annexation platform, the hard part of annexation – congressional approval - was already complete. Texas would officially join the union on Dec. 29, 1845.
Internationally, Mexico was pissed. The Mexicans didn’t immediately declare war, as they’d threatened to, but they did still claim control of what we today consider south and west Texas. And as far as Polk was concerned, this wouldn’t do. Up in Oregon, the British realized Polk’s election meant the Americans would soon be coming for total control of this territory, and they began developing plans to hold onto it.
It’s around this time, shortly after winning election, that Polk outlined the four goals of his administration to a friend.
1. Get the rest of Texas from Mexico. And while we’re at it, maybe the rest of the American southwest, too.
2. Get the Oregon territory from Britain, with a border established anywhere between Portland and north of Vancouver.
3. Lower the tariff
4. Establish an independent treasury.
And focusing on this four items is going to be the rest of today’s episode. Because Polk is going to accomplish all of them.
Let’s start with Texas, the greatest of these dramas.
In 1845, as Texas was undergoing the process of annexation, Polk sent negotiators to Mexico with orders to purchase recognition of American control of Texas, and control of all the land west of Texas to the California coast, for $30 million.
But he didn’t really expect this to succeed, so at the same time he was negotiating, Polk ordered a general named Zachary Taylor, Ol Rough n’ Ready! to form an “army of observation” on the Texas-Louisiana border with the intent of being on-hand to cross into Texas and defend it if Mexico invaded.
But Mexico didn’t invade.
So then, Polk ordered the army – which was now the largest American army since the revolutionary war – to move south and Zachary Taylor took it to the port town of Corpus Christi, on the Nueces river. Which is important. Because the Nueces river is the river that Mexico said was the Texas border, and it’s 100 miles north of the Rio Grande river, which is the river that the United States said was the Texas border. So basically, there are 100 miles of disputed territory that the United States and Mexico both claim to own directly south of Corpus Christi, and the American army was right on the edge of it.
But again, the Mexicans still didn’t invade. They stayed south of the rio grande river at their own port city and out of the contested territory both countries claim to control.
So then, in 1846, Polk ordered the army to cross into this contested territory and march right up to the rio grande – aka, 100 miles deep into territory the Mexicans considered theirs – and Polk gave Taylor explicit orders to attack any Mexican army that that crossed the rio grande river.
Which, well, maybe you can see where this is going.
On April 25, 1846, an American cavalry patrol was ambushed by Mexican forces and 11 Americans were killed. A dispatch about the violence reached Polk just as he was preparing to ask Congress to declare war on Mexico anyway – seriously, polk really wanted this war – and polk was overjoyed to see his provocation had finally worked. On May 11, he wrote to Congress, “After reiterated menaces, Mexico has passed the boundary of the united states, has invaded our territory, and shed American blood on American soil.” And, somehow avoiding sarcasm, he added, “War exist, and notwithstanding all our efforts to avoid it, exists by the act of Mexico itself.”
The phrase “American blood on American soil,” would become the American rallying cry of the war, and the declaration of war passed 174-14 in Congress and 40-2 in the senate. Our old friend John Quincy Adams was one of the few to vote against it.
The Mexican-American war, like almost every war, was expected to be a quick conflict that would last only a few months. Instead, it would last nearly two years, and require an invasion deep into the heart of Mexico to end it.
The first phase of the war was fought in northern Mexico, where Zachary Taylor won victory after victory against large Mexican armies. Taylor’s victories were so overwhelming that our next episode will be about all him, because it will make him famous enough to be elected president in 1848, so I’ll cover this part of the campaign then, but the important thing to know now is what Polk thought of these victories. And he was upset.
Why was Polk upset? Two reasons. First, he knew Zachary Taylor was a Whig, and, with good reason, he feared these victories would make Taylor popular enough to become president, and Polk didn’t want the Whigs to take the white house after he left it. So that put Polk in a bit of a catch-22. He wanted to win the war, but he didn’t want Taylor to win the war. And that’s frustrating, because Taylor is the general in charge of winning the war.
But there is that second reason Polk was unhappy. He’s unhappy because, despite Taylor’s repeated victories in northern Mexico, the Mexicans were refusing to surrender and give up all the land from Texas to California in exchange for a peace deal.
Which led to Polk’s first crazy idea of the war, and the reintroduction of someone we met in episode A. on Sam Houston – former Mexican dictator Santa Anna.
In 1846, Santa Anna – the 12-time leader of Mexico - was living in exile and working on return to power No. 10 when one of his allies reached out to Polk with a proposal. If Polk would sneak Santa Anna back into Mexico, Santa Anna would return to power, sue for peace, and sell Polk all the land he wanted for $30 million. Which seemed like a pretty good deal, so Polk said yes, Santa Anna snuck back into Mexico, returned to power, and then formed a 15,000-man army to fight the American invaders with.
So crazy idea No. 1 didn’t work. It was time for crazy idea no. 2. – an amphibious landing outside the Mexican port of Veracruz, nearly 500 miles south of the Rio Grande, and then a 200-mile invasion over the mountains to capture the capital at Mexico City and force peace.
Crazy idea No. 2 would work out better than crazy idea No. 1.
Jealous of Taylor’s growing popularity, Polk put a new general in charge of this invasion – a general I’ve been name-dropping since episode 4 on James Madison – General Winfield Scott, Ol’ Fuss and Feathers!
As you might guess from that nickname, Scott was old – he’d been with the army since the war of 1812 – and he was a bit prickly, but he was also a damn good general. Which is a good thing, because this invasion is a crazy idea. Landing a small army behind enemy lines and marching it across hostile terrain is asking for trouble, but Scott’s invasion went flawlessly. On March 29, 1847, he conquered the port city of Veracruz with 15,000 men and then used it as a supply base for his invasion into the interior. Santa Anna tried to block his invasion with 12,000 men, but a young officer named Robert E. Lee scouted a path behind the Mexican position, and the Americans used this to flank Santa Anna and drive him out of the mountains. By July, Scott’s men reached Mexico city, where Santa Anna now had 25,000 men to oppose him, but at least half of those were last-minute volunteers with little training, and the Americans now had a veteran army. In a series of bloody battles, the Americans fought their way up the valley and across the lava fields that surround Mexico city and on Sept. 14, 1847, captured the Mexican capital and again drove Santa Anna from power. Over the following months, a peace treaty was negotiated and signed on Feb. 2, 1848 – the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which recognized American control of Texas as far south as the Rio Grande River, and all the land west that would later become California, Utah, Nevada, and most of Arizona and New Mexico. In exchange for this land, the Americans paid $15 million dollars. All-told, Mexico surrendered 55% of its territory in the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
Much of that territory, by the way, had been conquered by smaller American military forces, including New Mexico and California. So by ceding this territory, Mexico was merely recognizing the reality of what the United States had already taken.
Ultimately, the United States won the Mexican-American war because of its superior leadership and artillery. Numerous future civil war legends like Grant, Lee, and others served in this war. Despite often being outnumbered, the Americans won every major battle. But there is one more aspect of the Mexican-American war to mention – the political side. Remember how I said nobody wanted to touch Texas because it would reopen the question over slavery? Well, as early as 1846 – two years before the war officially ended – a whig congressman named David Wilmot of Pennsylvania decided to force the south to prove this war wasn’t a land-grab for the expansion of slavery by attaching a proviso to an appropriations bill needed to pay for the war. The proviso declared that slavery would never be allowed to expand into the territory acquired from Mexico. Southerners were infuriated by this so-called “Wilmot Proviso,” because, to them, this totally was a land-grab for slavery, and they defeated it. But its mere introduction, and repeated reintroduction until the war’s end, would incense southerners and help set the tone for an acrimonious decade of political strife between north and south in the 1850’s.
So that’s the Mexican-American war. It’s a war we were manipulated into fighting by President Polk so he could realize his dreams of Manifest destiny and acquire 500,000 square miles of Mexican land for the United States.[KR2]
But Polk did have those three other accomplishments I promised we’d talk about, so let’s dive into the next one – the acquisition of the Oregon territory.
The Oregon territory was a chunk of land encompassing modern day Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. The area had once been claimed by Spain, Russia, Britain, and the U.S., but by 1844, only Great Britain and the United States were still in the game. They were actually jointly occupying it in a deal that had been arranged by John Quincy Adams during President James Monroe’s administration back in 1818. The rules of the deal were that both powers could settle Oregon, but neither could send their armies or build forts and either had to give the other a one-year notice if it wanted the arrangement to end.
And that’s pretty much how things held until 1843, when the first American wagon train headed west. Nobody had really made an effort to settle Oregon before this, but if you’ve ever played the game “Oregon trail,” this is that moment. By the end of the 1840’s, there will be 9,000 settlers in Oregon, and all but 300 will be American.
So when Polk became president in 1845, he began his pursuit of the territory. And he decided to play aggressively. His opening demand was a border at the 49th parallel – the border we have today – and the British countered by demanding a border at the Columbia river – the current boundary between Washington and Oregon. Instead of countering, Polk called off negotiations and kicked the heat up a notch.
During his 1845 State of the Union Address, Polk announced a 4-step plan for the acquisition of the Oregon territory. 1st, he gave Great Britain that 1-year notice that the United States was withdrawing from the joint occupation treaty. 2nd, he announced U.S. law would extend to American settlers in Oregon. 3rd, he announced a plan to build forts and station troops along the Oregon trail to protect settlers heading west. And 4th, he announced American Indian removal policies would be applied to the Oregon territory.
By announcing he was going to deploy troops and build forts in the Oregon territory, Polk was taking a big gamble. Great Britain had a huge military, and the United States was just then getting embroiled in war with Mexico. There was no way the U.S. could win on both fronts, but it was all bluster. As he wrote in his journal, “The only way to treat John Bull – (a nickname for britain) – was to look him straight in the eye. If congress faltered or hesitated in their course, John Bull would immediately become arrogant and more grasping in his demands.”
And the bluster worked. He suddenly had Great Britain’s attention. But American rhetoric was starting to get pretty heated. I mentioned Polk had asked for the 49th parallel. Well, back in Congress, some legislators wanted more. “54’40 or fight” became a popular slogan among congressmen who wanted a boundary drawn so far north the Americans would have gotten Vancouver, all of Vancouver island, and the modern ski resort at Whistler. Polk didn’t really care how much of Oregon he got, so he left it up to the senate to decide, and the senate eventually voted to extend an offer for the 49th parallel – polk’s initial offer.
By this point, the British were well aware that some Americans wanted far more than that. And as much as the Americans couldn’t afford a war, Great Britain didn’t want one either. Great Britain and the United States were major trading partners by now. Was it really worth putting all that trade at risk for a little bit more territory on the far side of the world that Britain hadn’t even really done anything with yet? And so the British signed the Oregon Treaty of 1846, which ceded the Oregon Territory to the Americans and gave us the pacific-northwest borders we have today.
So that’s how the United States got the Oregon territory. Aggressive and honest negotiations with great Britain that boiled down to a game of chicken where the British blinked.
Which brings us to Polk’s third and fourth accomplishments – the establishment of an independent treasury and the lowering of tariffs.
The lowering of tariffs proved the more difficult of the two, which shouldn’t be surprising. Remember, a conflict over tariffs took the United States to the verge of civil war during the nullification crisis a decade earlier. This stuff could be volatile!
The debate in Polk’s case came down to two types of tariffs. The country currently had protectionist tariffs, which are tariffs on foreign goods designed to nurture and protect American businesses. In the past, I used the example of a $10 tariff on bananas. If all foreign bananas cost $10, you’d buy American bananas – but you could bet your britches American banana growers would hike their prices to $9 a banana to maximize profit.
Well Polk didn’t like tariffs like that. He preferred revenue-generating tariffs. The idea of revenue-generating tariffs is you set the tariff at the rate that maximizes revenue. So picture a curve and let’s talk about bananas again. When the tariff is low, say one penny per foreign banana, everyone’s going to continue buying foreign bananas, but you won’t raise much money, because you’re only making a penny a banana. When the tariff is too high, say $10 a banana, it also doesn’t make much money, because now nobody is buying foreign bananas. But if you set it to, say, 5 or 10 cents a banana, sure, some americans might stop buying foreign bananas, but most will keep buying them, and you’ll make the maximum amount of tariff revenue possible when you find that sweet spot of how high can you raise the tariff before people stop buying bananas in droves.
Anyway, getting this tariff law passed was a huge pain in the butt. It eventually passed the senate with a 27-27 vote where Polk’s vice president had to cast the tie-breaking vote, and that’s only after one senator changed his vote in the final hours and another senator was chased down at the train station to keep him from fleeing Washington ahead of the difficult vote.
So the revenue-generating tariff is passed! That takes us to Polk’s final accomplishment – the independent treasury. And this one was anti-climactically easy, but also hugely impactful. Remember, in 1844, the United States had no national bank and no independent treasury after Andrew Jackson killed the last bank and John Tyler killed Martin Van Buren’s independent treasury. The lack of these institutions made the economy a bit precarious, and Polk wanted to provide stability. He favored the independent treasury as a place the government would deposit its hard currency – gold – with the idea that the treasury would only act as a depository and could not make loans or investment. The benefits of this system were that you minimized the risk of economic bubbles and recessions, and the government would always have gold on hand to pay its debts, but the cons of the system were that the government putting all its money in these vaults would take money out of circulation, meaning, if you need a loan to grow your business, it’s harder to get it. This slowed economic development, and also made it harder to survive the economic recessions and panics that did happen, because you couldn’t secure a loan to get you over the hump.
Just because you’re not making big loans doesn’t mean you don’t have recessions.
Anyway. Former President Martin Van Buren had spent his entire presidency and all his political capital to make something like this happen in 1840. But Polk was able to accomplish it almost as an afterthought in 1846. The independent treasury system he created would last until 1913, when we eventually switched to the federal reserve system we still operate under today.
By 1848, Polk had accomplished every major goal he’d laid out at the start of his administration – he’d acquired the American southwest by manipulating the U.S. into a war with Mexico, he’d acquired the Oregon territory through bold negotiation with Great Britain, he’d lowered the tariff in a vote that passed by a hair, and then he’d established an independent treasury that would last more than 60 years. After all of that, he was tired. And who can blame him! So he prepared to retire. That’s right, after one term, Polk is going to leave the white house, because I hadn’t mentioned it yet, but back during the campaign of 1844, he had vowed to serve only a single term. And in 1848, he was ready to make that his fifth promise kept. Polk didn’t run for reelection, and when his term ended on March 4, 1849, he stepped into retirement.
So how had America changed during the four years of the Polk administration? Territory-wise, a ton! When you look at a map of the lower 48 states, Polk is the president who made it look the way it does. We’ll purchase a little more land from Mexico later and make other changes too small to even see, but when Polk leaves office, we’re basically there.
Four new states were added to the union – two in the north, and two in the south. Texas, duh, on Dec. 29, 1845; Florida on March 3, 1845; Iowa on Dec. 28, 1846; and Wisconsin on May 29, 1848, bringing the United States of America to 30 states.
One last thing domestically. A few months before Polk left office, a messenger arrived from California with a precious package in hand – it was California gold. Any 49ers fans out there? The announced discovery of gold in California is going to trigger a historically massive westward migration, and when California is ready for statehood a year later, it’s going to put that question of the expansion of slavery on the front burner in a big way.
On the invention front, I’ll give you two. Up in New York City, a volunteer Firefighter and bank clerk named Alexander Joy Cartwright codified the first official rules for the new sport of baseball. Among other things, the rules called for a diamond-shaped infield, a three-strike rule, and banned the practice of tagging runners out by throwing balls at them.
And your second invention? The donut. This may be apocryphal, but the story goes an American sailor was trying to eat a fried dough ball that had nuts in the middle while sailing through a storm in 1847 when the waves got so rough that he needed both hands to hold the wheel steady, so he jammed his dough ball onto a wheel spoke, creating the familiar ring shape we know today.
On the international front, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights was published in 1847, the Communist Manifesto was published in 1848, and a great potato famine struck Ireland in the late 1840’s. So get ready for the first great wave of immigrants to hit American shores in the 1850’s, which surely won’t result in the reactive creation of an anti-immigrant secret-society-turned political movement that will try to win the white house, right?
Stay tuned in a couple episodes for that one.
Anyway, in 1849, Polk set out for what he hoped to be a long retirement. At 53 years old, he was one of the youngest ex presidents the country had ever had. But, sadly for Polk, his retirement is going to be the shortest of any ex president. Polk had been a sickly guy his whole life – he was so small, his wife popularized the tune “Hail to the chief” by having a band play it whenever he entered a room so he’d be noticed – and the country was experiencing a cholera outbreak during the months this small, sickly president was traveling home. It appears Polk contracted the disease either just before leaving D.C. or on his way home to Nashville. He died June 15, 1849, at his home in Nashville, just 103 days after leaving the presidency. He was 53 years old.
So what can we learn from Polk? How about, if you want to accomplish something, make a list! I feel like this one is in every 10 cent self-help book on the shelf, but it’s in all of them for a reason. At the start of his administration, Polk laid out everything he wanted to do and the timeline by which he wanted to do it – four years. That timeline honed his focus on his four clearly identified goals and helped him become one of the most successful presidents, in terms of accomplishing what they set out to do, in American history.
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The music in today’s podcast is a public domain recording of the United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps. The intro music was a recording of Isaac Brands from Smithsonian Folkway Records.
The primary biography for today’s episode was Polk: The man who transformed America, a fantastic read by Walter R. Borneman.
In our next episode, we’ll look at the life and presidency of Zachary Taylor, the man whose battlefield victories will win him the presidency – including a climactic showdown against Mexican dictator Santa Anna himself in the deserts of northern Mexico.
That’s next time, on Abridged Presidential Histories.