Tuesday, November 02, 2010

In Memoriam: James K. Polk

I must confess that I didn't know anything about the 11th US President until I heard the song about him by They Might Be Giants, from their 1996 album Factory Showroom. The song itself is a triumph of pop - not just music but culture - presenting history as it does in such an interesting and memorable way; hear it once, I guarantee you'll be humming it forever. A real earworm, as Mr. Barr would say.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketConsidered the best solution to an impasse in the Democratic Party, the former Speaker of the House and governor of Tennessee James K. Polk (born this day in 1795) was one of the first so-called dark horse candidates when he was nominated. Once elected, rather than merely serving as a caretaker president, he became one of the young nation's solidest leaders, fulfilling the Manifest Destiny inherent in President James Monroe's famous doctrine by completing most of the contiguous 48 states during his single term in office, save for the tiny Gadsden Purchase, which was finally bought for $10 million in 1853.

Neither the first slave-holding President nor the last, his position on slavery (especially involving the prevention of its expansion into new territories north and west of Missouri) made him equally unpopular among slavers, abolitionists, and compromisers alike; Polk favoured the extension of the Missouri Compromise over implementation of the Wilmot Proviso.

From the start Polk was resolved to serve only one term, and he set four clearly defined goals for his administration: the re-establishment of the Independent Treasury System, the reduction of tariffs, acquisition of some or all the Oregon boundary dispute, and the purchase of California and the Southwest from Mexico. It was also during his term that the Republic of Texas was admitted to the Union.

He did all of that in the time he allotted himself, kept to his word by shirking his incumbency, and then to seal the deal, died in June 1849, just three months after leaving office; the Presidency has been shown time and again to take its toll on those who assume it, but it took even more from the once-handsome Polk, who worked tirelessly to implement his agenda, even while reportedly suffering from cholera. At the time of his death he was only 53.

His home is now a museum, in Nashville.
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