My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with James Polk, the eleventh President of the United States. The biography I chose with my selection process (reading reviews online and utilizing and this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies) was Polk: The Man Who transformed the Presidency and America by Walter R. Borneman.
Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to present my official ranking for the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!! The full list of the rankings, updated as I read through this list, may be found here.
Polk: The Man Who transformed the Presidency and America by Walter R. Borneman
Polk’s career seems to have been defined by destiny. Whether it was his destiny as a man mentored by Andrew Jackson to become President or his utter belief of and living out of the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, Polk’s place in history seemed assured from a fairly young age. After studying law, he rose through the Tennessee legislature to get to Congress. Soon integrated into larger issues as a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, his friendship with Andrew Jackson grew and he campaigned for the man to become President. Finally becoming President himself, he would expand the powers of the executive office more than perhaps any predecessor, with his eyes upon expanding the borders of the United States as well.
Polk was a firm believer in Manifest Destiny, perhaps one of the most damaging ideas in the history of the United States. The idea was that America was some kind of glorious city on a hill and the spread of American (read: white, largely Anglo-European) settlers across the vast expanse of the west was destiny–a destiny given by God. Though Borneman doesn’t explore the notion much (indeed, in the biography the term is only mentioned a few times, and never in much detail), it is clear through Polk’s actions that he fully bought into this perspective.
When he became President, Polk had four primary goals: “resolve the joint occupation of Oregon, acquire California, reduce the tariff, and establish an independent treasury” (353). The first two were clearly goals related to Manifest Destiny, and he would go to war to gain California. The dispute over Oregon was eventually resolved as war loomed with Mexico. The United States wasn’t prepared for a two front war against two different opponents, and Polk fell back from his hardline stance over where the boundary for Oregon should be drawn, thus gaining agreement from the United Kingdom.
California was a different affair, and Polk seemed to realize quickly that Mexico would not easily cede California, and began looking for a way to take it from them. He was, he thought, given a gift when blood was spilled near the Rio Grande, though not on American soil. It did, however, become a rallying cry, and Polk moved to declare war. Rather than letting Congress initiate it, however, Polk presented Congress with a declaration of war and got their approval, a clear expansion of executive power. Even as he did this, and having already prepared for the conflict by moving American soldiers into the area, he moved to use the navy as well. These moves expanded the conflict but also helped get a victory for the United States.
There were a few times in Polk’s presidency when he made clear errors of judgment. Perhaps the most obvious time was with his claim about “American blood on American soil”–his claim that Mexico had attacked and killed apparently innocent American soldiers and killed them in American territory. The claim was false and would haunt Polk as his critics continually pointed out his error. Nevertheless, the claim burgeoned the popularity of war with Mexico and effectively got Polk what he wanted anyway. Another issue was his “54 40 or fight” slogan referring to demanding Oregon from the United Kingdom, apparently over threat of war. Those who took up the cry favored war rather vehemently, and Polk was forced to throttle back his claims a bit. Thankfully, it did not come to war, and P0lk had another victory from apparent error.
Polk owned slaves and wrote into his will to free them when he died–so long as his wife agreed. Some see wills like this as evidence of a kind of softening towards slavery, but I think this is clearly mistaken, as it really just shows people wanted to live by enslaving others and didn’t much care what happened once they died. It was a fairly common practice, but one that does nothing to mitigate the ills of slavery. Polk’s clearly expansionist attitude helped contribute to more atrocities being committed against native peoples as white settlers spread and used military might and deception to displace people who were already on the land they overtook.
Regarding the biography, Borneman writes well, and his outlining of the life of Polk is fascinating and enlightening. I had thought for some time that Polk was a rather forgettable President, but after reading this biography, it seems Polk’s influence–for good or ill–on later events in our country, and certainly upon its borders, is astounding. I recommend Polk: The Man Who transformed the Presidency and America highly.
Polk’s Original Ranking in THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES
6. James K. Polk (11th President- original ranking- #6): James Polk achieved the goals that he set for himself as he entered the office of the President. As his biographer, Walter Borneman points out, those goals were “resolve the joint occupation of Oregon, acquire California, reduce the tariff, and establish an independent treasury” (Polk, 353). Polk accomplished all of these goals, though it took a war to do so. Moreover, he expanded the power of the executive branch, including in the President’s powers regarding war, getting directly involved in helping order the conflict. His clear belief in Manifest Destiny, that doctrine that ought to be consigned to the trash heap of history, continues to influence nationalism today. The unspeakable atrocities that continued to be perpetrated on those peoples native to the land the United States would gain in international eyes though his Presidency must not be understated. Nevertheless, it would be difficult to find many Presidents with greater impact on our country than Polk had.
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