James K. Polk was our 11th President and served from March 4,  1845 to March 5, 1849.

Nicknames: Young Hickory, Napoleon of the Stump

Quote: “I prefer to supervise the whole operations of the Government myself rather than entrust the public business to subordinates and this makes my duties very great.”

I read the biography “Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America” by Walter R. Borneman.  Here’s what I learned:

  • up until the election of JFK, when asked to list the top ten US Presidents, historians AND laypeople both consistently put Polk at number 8 or 9, sometimes ahead of George Washington
  • he was of Scotch-Irish descent
  • born in North Carolina in November, 1795
  • growing up, he was constantly in poor health due to urinary tract infections and urinary stones; he had surgery at age 17 with no anasthesia but brandy
  • in 1816, he attended the University of North Carolina and graduated in 1818 with honors
  • his room mate was a future Florida governor
  • he was considered Andrew Jackson’s protege
  • he began his political career as a clerk in the Tennessee Senate while pursuing a law degree
  • in 1823, he was elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives
  • married socialite Sarah Childress on Jan 1, 1824
  • one of his close friends was a man named Davy Crockett
  • in 1825, he was elected to the Tennessee Congress for the first of five terms
  • was elected governor of Tennessee in 1839
  • he lost two subsequent elections for Tennessee Governor and his political career was considered over
  • then, in 1844, he went from not even an option to becoming the unanimous Democratic candidate for President in under 24 hours, saving a deadlocked convention stuck between Martin Van Buren and Lewis Cass
  • his candidacy for President was the first to be announced via telegraph
  • he was also the first President to fail to get his own states electoral votes and still win
  • took a very personal interest and responsibility in micromanaging his office and laid down the strictest instructions for his cabinet of any President, including: all members must support the principles of the Democratic party, in order to run for President or another office they would be required to resign their Cabinet position, they were expected to stay in the capitol at all times except Christmas
  • his Vice President was George Dallas
  • during his Presidency, the brunt of the Oregon Trail was founded
  • the disputed “Oregon Territory” with Great Britain at that time was actually Washington state
  • he attended First Presbyterian church in the capitol regularly and refused visitors on Sundays except in dire circumstances
  • favorite foods (via The Awl) – Ham, corn pone, omelets
  • right before the conflict with Mexico, he told General Taylor to attack any Mexican forces north of the Rio Grande River to protect Texas
  • at the beginning of the Mexican-American War, Mexico owed American merchants over five million dollars
  • on May 13, 1846 we declared war on Mexico
  • he penned the phrase used by many Presidents about how long a war would last – “no more men will be called out and no more money expended than will be absolutely necessary to bring the present state of hostilities to an end.”
  • he nearly brought the U.S. to war with Great Britain and Mexico at the same time with the conflicts over Texas and the Oregon Territories, especially when his Secretary of State, James Buchanan, got involved
  • then, by trying to get California as well, he risked war with Mexico, Great Britain, France, and Russia
  • he was the President who began the transition of power to declare war from the legislative branch (Congress) to the executive branch (the President)
  • he formed the constitutional treasury, the pre-cursor to the Federal Reserve System
  • his Presidential Cabinet was the first to have a group photo taken
  • New Mexico territory was claimed during his term
  • Abraham Lincoln considered him a power hungry maniac
  • Polk laid the cornerstone of the Washington Monument
  • Cave Johnson, his Postmaster General, was the inventor of the pre-paid postage stamp to place on mail, to ensure the postal service would get paid
  • Polk authorized the creation of the Department of the Interior, although he had some doubts
  • He made 5 campaign promises while running for President and he kept all 5 of them: he would only run for one term, he would resolve the Oregon Territory in favor of the US with Great Britain, he would reduce the tariff to a revenue basis, he would form an independent government treasury, and he would secure California and the Southwest for the United States
  • he took a long tour through the South after leaving office on his way to his new retirement home in Tennessee, Polk Place
  • he died, probably of cholera and overwork from his term as President, 4 months after leaving office and after only 13 days at Polk Place, on June 15, 1849
  • his wife, Sarah, had the longest widowhood of any First Lady – 42 years
  • his grave was in the front yard of Polk Place until Sarah died
  • during the Civil War, both sides respected President and Mrs. Polk so much that they made a point never to attack Polk Place and generals from both sides would come to call on Mrs. Polk peaceably

<— John Tyler **********  Zachary Taylor —>

Post title taken from Jonathan Coulton’s “The Presidents”