James Polk had a tough act to follow. John Tyler was the best president of all time, and vastly underrated by historians who don’t know enough about him. Those same historians tend to revere Polk. But Polk was actually a poor president.
I can’t say how many books I’ve read that sing Polk’s praises because he was goal-driven. Kenneth Davis’ Don’t Know Much About the American Presidents will suffice as an example. He gives Polk a perfect A-rating, his lead reason being that Polk “stated what he was going to do and accomplished his goals” (p 202). On that logic, any national leader can be great for simply doing what he sets out to do, no matter how bad his policies. Stalin and Hitler would belong in the hall of the greats.
So I’m going to examine each of the four goals for which Polk is widely praised, and — unlike every historian I have read — I am going to stop and consider whether or not each goal was actually a decent one, and also how Polk went about obtaining that goal, whether it was decent or not. The first two goals relate to peace, the second two to prosperity.
Goal #1: Take California and New Mexico from Mexico (The Mexican War)
Soon after his inauguration in March of 1845, Polk tried to buy California and New Mexico from Mexico, but the Mexicans were so enraged by Congress’s joint resolution to annex Texas (signed by John Tyler three days before leaving office), that they refused to negotiate and broke off all diplomatic relations with the U.S.
The background: Texas had been independent from Mexico since 1836, but Mexico had never really accepted accepted the loss, and the Mexicans believed, not without justification, that Americans had come from the east and stolen their lands. By the 1840s, the vast majority of Texans wanted to be annexed by the U.S., and so from one point of view, John Tyler had not done wrong in appealing to Congress to do as the Texans wished. But he had also been warned repeatedly by Mexico that if the U.S. annexed Texas, it would mean war. Tyler went ahead anyway, signed the joint resolution, and Polk enthusiastically endorsed it when he took over. At the end of December of 1845, the resolution went into effect, and Texas was admitted as a slave state. Sure enough, Mexico immediately mobilized for war. America was divided — between cool thinkers and manifest-destiny hotheads.
The term “manifest destiny” had been coined months earlier (in the summer of 1845), by the New York Jacksonian Democrat, John O’Sullivan. He insisted that the annexation of Texas was destined, and that opponents of annexation were “limiting America’s greatness” and “blocking the fulfillment of its manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence”. For this reason he believed that Oregon Country should also be taken (on which see below). James Polk was on board with this, seeing a God-given right of Americans to expand their territory and institutions.
The Mexican War began in May of 1846, after Zachary Taylor’s troops clashed with Mexicans on the north bank of the Rio Grande in late April. But Polk had been pushing Congress to declare war before the clash in the Rio Grande — hell bent on engineering a war in order to achieve his goal in taking California and New Mexico. He had sent Taylor’s troops into the disputed border region (between the Rio Grande and Neuces Rivers) hoping to provoke an attack from the Mexicans, and that certainly worked. But even worse — and even before the clash of troops — Polk had ordered a blockade of the Rio Grande which cut off supplies to the Mexican town of Matamoros. That was back in the middle of March. So it’s not just that the U.S. provoked the Mexicans into battle (by sending Taylor into disputed territory); the U.S. had actually started the war by taking the first hostile action. Blockades are acts of war.
Polk’s war was largely successful. Mexico was defeated nine months later by General Taylor in February of 1847, but the war stretched on for another full year. Americans grew increasingly angry and they condemned the Mexican War as an offensive power grab at a weaker nation’s territory. The House passed a resolution that castigated Polk for a war “unnecessarily and unconstitutionally begun by the President of the United States”. The desertion rate for U.S. soldiers was 8.3%. Polk was widely despised to say the least. Finally, in February of 1848, the war was ended by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
The treaty confirmed the incorporation of Texas as part of the United States, and it also granted the U.S. plenty of territories — large parts of present-day California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming. Polk achieved his goal and much more. But he did this by starting and provoking a war of conquest against a weaker neighbor. When foreign leaders beat up on the weak in this way, historians usually censure them, but in Polk’s case, they seem to think it’s all very swell.
The Mexican War helped cause the Civil War. Southerners wanted all the new territories to include slavery, while northerners wanted to prohibit further extension of slavery. Under the Missouri Compromise of 1820 both sides had been kept happy, but the new land in the southwest changed that. Polk sided with his fellow southerns and slave owners, and wanted the Missouri Compromise line to extend to the Pacific Ocean — which would have allowed slavery in Southern California, New Mexico, and Arizona.
Goal #2: Take all of Oregon Country from Britain
At the same time he was engineering war with Mexico, Polk courted war with Britain by pursuing his second goal. He wanted all of the Oregon Territory, which encompassed what is today all of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho; parts of Montana and Wyoming; and part of the Canadian province of British Columbia. The United States and Britain had controlled this area (the white area on the map) jointly under the treaty signed in 1818 by James Monroe. James Polk wanted it all for America, and in his annual address to Congress in December of 1845, he urged terminating the joint occupation, and giving the British a year to leave. This reckless brinkmanship caused yet another divide among the American citizens. By January, manifest-destiny hotheads were shouting “54-40 or Fight!”, which referred to the northern boundary of the territory (see map).
Had Britain been in the mood for a fight, Polk would have been up shit creek. The US would have found itself facing the strongest navy in the world at the same time it was sticking Mexico in the eye. Polk was very lucky: Britain was willing to compromise, and in June of 1846 (a month after the start of the Mexican War), the Senate approved the Oregon Treaty, establishing the 49th parallel as the border between the British Canada and the America. So Polk actually fell short of his goal (we’re always told that he accomplished all of his goals). He didn’t get all of the Oregon Country, only half — the half which encompassed present-day Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. (The other half is still Canada today.) Also: while Polk is usually given full credit for acquiring these areas, he deserves only some: the Lewis & Clark expedition under Thomas Jefferson deserves most of it for staking the claim on the land to begin with. But actually Polk deserves very little credit, for the way and why he went about doing all of this. He came close to getting the nation whipped by a superpower, purely for the sake of manifest destiny.
Goal #3: Bring back the Independent Treasury
Polk’s third goal was the reinstatement of the Independent Treasury, which he restored in 1846. While this was certainly a better option to the crony capitalism of the First and Second National Banks (1791-1811; 1816-1836), the Independent Treasury wasn’t ideal. Martin Van Buren had originally proposed the idea as a “total separation of bank and state”, but it only went into effect for one year (in 1840) before it was repealed. Polk’s revival kept it in effect for 67 years until the creation of the Federal Reserve (in 1913). According to some analysts, the Independent Treasury was the best banking system the United States ever had. Thus, for example, Jeffrey Rogers Hummel:
“Historians who dismiss the Independent Treasury as constraining the government ‘to accept payments and to make them in an antiquated medium’ have never adequately explained the relative quiescence of monetary debates during its operation. The First and Second US Banks (1791-1811; 1816-1836) had divided political parties since the adoption of the Constitution. The Civil War’s national banking system and Greenbacks subsequently induced fresh convulsions over currency questions. If the Independent Treasury was in fact so obviously deficient, why did it provoke no similar political outcry? Moreover, its reenactment coincided with heavy expenditures for Polk’s war against Mexico, yet that military effort caused the economy less financial dislocation than any previous American war. During the nation’s next financial panic in 1857, the Treasury was effectively insulated from the bank suspension. There is also no evidence that the Independent Treasury hobbled the country’s economic growth.”
Those are good points, but in the long term, the Independent Treasury did have the effect of gradually centralizing financial power in the federal government. The best banking policy was that which had been advocated all along by the Jeffersonians (Jefferson, Madison, Tyler) — that is, the use of state chartered private banks without a national bank or any centralized treasury. All centralized systems — whether the First National Bank (1791-1811), the Second National Bank (1816-1836), the Independent Treasury (1840, 1846-1913), or the Federal Reserve (1913-today) — produced widespread objections, except, as Hummel notes, for the Independent Treasury. The Independent Treasury was thus the least of the centralized evils, but it still wasn’t great. Polk earns moderate marks for achieving this goal.
Goal #4: Cut tariffs
Also to his credit, Polk opposed tariffs. In 1846 his Secretary of the Treasury (Robert Walker) reduced the Whigs’ previous tariff rates from 32% to 25%, which stimulated trade. This is the one goal Polk deserves unreserved praise for, but it only gets him so far, not being a major issue.
James Polk was not the great president lionized in today’s mainstream opinion. He accomplished most of his goals, but the first two goals were not admirable, and he went about achieving them in a rash and unethical manner. His third and fourth goals were okay but only count for so much.
Peace. For recklessly courting war with two countries at once — and provoking the weaker one — for what he perceived as a God-given right, and for waging a war which the American citizens and Congressmen resented, Polk gets zero peace points. I could be inclined to throw him a few points for the end result (acquisition of the new land in itself was positive), except that I have to downgrade him again for the corollary he drafted to the Monroe Doctrine: Polk had the gall to prohibit European diplomatic intervention in the Western hemisphere, not just military intervention and colonization as Monroe had forbidden. That was an unwarranted affront on Latin American sovereignty. Polk gets a goose egg.
Prosperity. For reviving the Independent Treasury he gets moderate marks. The institution remained fairly deregulated for 67 years and provoked minimal objections among the people, but it also put America on the road to a centralized system ending in the Federal Reserve. Fighting inflation and cutting tariffs also earns him points. I score him 13.
Liberty. He scores for respecting civil liberties during the Mexican War, which is rare in U.S. history. Madison is the only other president who respected American liberty during time of war (the War of 1812). In all other major conflicts — the Quasi-War with France under John Adams, the Civil War under Lincoln, the World Wars under Wilson and FDR — the presidents in question trampled on citizens’ rights with abandon. However, Polk must be downgraded for everything he did to promote slavery. Not only did the Mexican War itself advance that cause, Polk took part in crushing the Wilmot Proviso of 1846, which would have at least banned slavery in newly acquired territories.
Peace — 0/20
Prosperity — 13/20
Liberty — 9/20
TOTAL SCORE = 22/60 = Bad
The lesson to take from James Polk is that being goal-driven is meaningless. Goals are a sign of how effective a president is, but say nothing about how good he is. And Polk wasn’t good, he was poor.