27 James Polk

This is a post in My Presidential Rankings series, linked here: https://sdu754.wordpress.com/2014/01/05/presidential-rankings/

If ever there was a president whom was ranked on the basis of “the ends justify the means” that president would be James Polk. He generally ranks highly for the land acquired from Mexico, with no second thought to how he went about gaining that territory.

Polk is also given credit for having four stated goals for his presidency, and then achieving the four goals. Polk never publicly stated these goals, and in fact, he recommended a number of measures to congress that were not adopted. The “four goals” myth came from Polk’s secretary of war, George Bancroft, forty-two years after Polk left office, when Bancroft was eighty-six years old. He wrote a letter to historian James Schouler, that Polk had came to him with “four great measures”. Considering Bancroft’s age, the passage of time and the fact that nobody else ever knew of the “four goals” until then, it is quite doubtful that the account is accurate. We will none-the-less focus on the “four goals” of Polk’s presidency.

The first goal Polk went after was the Oregon Territory, which spanned the area west of the continental divide between California and Alaska. The United States and Britain controlled the area jointly under the treaty of 1818. Polk wanted all the territory, which led to cries of 54-40 or fight, referring to the northern boundary of Oregon was the latitude line of 54 degrees, 40 minutes. Polk recklessly courted war with both Britain and Mexico at the same time in his attempt to grab the whole of Oregon. Had Britain been in the mood for a fight, the US would have found itself in a two front war against the strongest Navy in the world. Luckily for Polk Britain was willing to compromise, and set the boundary at 49 degrees, the boundary that was suggested, but not settled upon in negotiations of the Webster Ashburton treaty. Britain’s main contention against this line is that it intersects Vancouver Island, which an exception was made, so that all of Vancouver Island fell into British possession. The only area that the US got that Britain wanted was the area that makes up the state of Washington. Polk is generally given full credit for bringing this territory into the United States’ borders, but it was the Lewis & Clark expedition under Jefferson that gave claim to the land. This is also a case where Polk fell short of a goal, as he didn’t get all of Oregon territory, he only got roughly half.

As for California, Polk tried to buy it from Mexico, when Mexico refused to sell, he sent General Zachary Taylor into disputed territory to invoke an attack. This was several weeks before the Oregon boundary had been settled. Polk even created a letter to congress for war with Mexico before he sent his troops to the Rio Grande. Polk obviously had intended to push the US into war to gain California. Polk even took political considerations into his execution of the war. Wen Taylor was becoming too big of a hero, and a possible presidential candidate for 1848, Polk pulled troops from his army. Polk moved the troops to general Winfield Scott, whom finished off the military campaign. Polk even tried a rather underhanded and odd strategy to end the war. The United States also negotiated a secret arrangement with Antonio López de Santa Anna, the Mexican general and dictator who had been overthrown in 1844. Santa Anna agreed that, if given safe passage into Mexico, he would attempt to persuade those in power to sell California and New Mexico to the United States. Once he reached Mexico, however, he reneged on his agreement, declared himself President, and tried to drive the American invaders back.

The Mexican-American War helped to lead directly to the American Civil War. Southerners wanted the new territories to include slavery, northerners wanted to prohibit further extension of slavery. Under the Missouri Compromise both sides had been kept happy, until the influx of new land in the southwest. Polk sided with his fellow slave owners, and wanted the Missouri Compromise line extended, which would have allowed slavery in Southern California, New Mexico & Arizona. The problem with Polk’s plan was the Wilmot Proviso, which would have banned slavery in any new territory acquired from Mexico. The Wilmot Proviso was introduced by Democratic Representative David Wilmot on August 8, 1846. Polk was unhappy with the proviso, and felt that Wilmot had stabbed him in the back by introducing the law.

The United States did win a large amount of territory from Mexico, but not as much as Polk is given credit for. The Republic of Texas actually contained all of Texas and the portion of New Mexico east of the Rio Grand River. In reality Polk added the states of California, Nevada, Utah, Most of Arizona and about a third of New Mexico. He’s generally given credit for far more. He also did so by starting a war of conquest against a weaker neighbor, something that isn’t looked upon admirably in foreign leaders by American historians, but is in Polk’s case.

The third goal was the re-instatement of the Independent Treasury. While Polk did achieve this goal, he was in fact just putting back in place the system that failed in the panic of 1837. The Independent treasury system also led to there being hundreds of different currencies within the United States, as each bank printed it’s own notes, that were convertible in gold, silver or US minted coins. The system led to instability, because if a bank failed, all of it’s currency became useless paper. The system needed to be overhauled during the civil war.

The fourth goal was tariff reform. While it is true Polk was able to get revised tariffs passed, most pre World War II presidents were able to get revised tariffs that they favored, so this really isn’t any type of accomplishment.

James Polk wasn’t a great, or even near great president. Whereas he did accomplish some of his goals, he did so at times in a reckless manner. He courted war with two countries at once, started a war of conquest against a weaker neighbor, and left the United States with it’s worst banking system. For these shortfalls, as well as the inability to see that the spoils of his war would stir up the slavery issue, I rank Polk as a poor president.


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