My late friend Peter Hannaford believed, “If presidents are to be judged by their ratio of achievement to their stated goals, James Polk had a 100 percent record and, in that respect, must be seen as one of our most successful presidents.”
Peter was a Republican all his life, but he was also a big fan of Democratic President James Polk (1845-1849). As a proud Californian, Peter had a library full of books on the history of his home state. He was grateful to Polk for expanding the country to include California.
He was also very impressed that Polk was a politician that managed to keep all of his promises. Before Peter passed away last year (today would have been his 84th birthday), we were in the process of writing a book proposal about the history of presidential promises. We wanted to rate every president by the number of promises kept. We wrote a few sample chapters for book publishers, and Polk was the subject of the first one.
President Polk made four promises and achieved all of them in a single term. In the process, Polk engineered the nation’s second largest territorial expansion after Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase.
The beginnings of what later came to be called “Manifest Destiny” can be traced to the French and Indian War (1756-63). It was fought in part to make it safe for farmers in the British colonies along the Eastern seaboard to expand their settlements to new lands beyond the Appalachian Mountains.
By the end of American Revolution, only 25,000 Americans had crossed the Appalachians. Less than 20 years later, the census of 1800 revealed that more than half a million had moved west of the mountains. The desire for expansion never stopped.
By the time James Polk defeated Henry Clay in 1844, the vote was seen an endorsement, generally, of further expansion to the Pacific. In the Democratic primary, Polk defeated former President Martin Van Buren because Van Buren opposed the annexation of Texas.
Van Buren opposed this popular measure because he was sure Henry Clay would be the Whig candidate and would also oppose annexation, thus making it a non-issue in the campaign. While Van Buren was right that Clay would be the Whig candidate, he misread the American electorate.
To Van Buren’s surprise, his Southern supporters began to desert him. His mentor, former President Andrew Jackson, had written a letter in favor of annexation and it was now being widely reprinted in newspapers.
At the time, the Democrats required their nominee to win two thirds of the delegates. On the first ballot, Van Buren won 146 of 266 delegates. It was a majority, but it wasn’t enough. By the 9th ballot, Polk won the 1844 nomination.
President John Tyler had submitted the Texas annexation treaty to the Senate in April 1844. He harbored hopes for another term but his fellow Whigs nominated Henry Clay.
In response, Tyler spurned his own party and endorsed Polk. In August, the treaty to bring Texas into the union was defeated in the Senate.
Clay was relieved and other anti-expansion Whigs rejoiced. They had, however, underestimated the tide for expansion and Polk won the general election.
Polk’s Four Goals
Once in office, Polk confided his four goals to his friend, and Secretary of the Navy, George Bancroft:
Although not part of a public statement, these goals were held by Polk with such intensity that they amounted to promises.
First, Texas would have to be annexed. This was a centerpiece of Polk’s campaign.President Tyler was embittered by the defeat in the Senate. Despite having endorsed Polk, he disliked him and decided to deprive Polk of the victory of annexing Texas.
In early 1845, before Polk’s inauguration, Tyler asked Congress to pass a joint resolution admitting Texas as a state. It passed Congress on February 28, just days before Polk’s inauguration. Texas accepted the offer and become a state on December 29.
Polk entered into negotiations over the Oregon boundary shortly after taking office. With the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Aberdeen, Polk worked out a compromise boundary at the 49th Parallel. The Senate approved the Oregon Treaty in 1846. The U.S. gained all of what is now Oregon, Washington, Idaho and sections of Wyoming and Montana.
In 1846, Congress passed legislation to reduce the protectionist Whig tariffs of 1842 and to restore an independent Treasury.
War With Mexico
With Texas annexed and negotiations over Oregon moving ahead, the new president sent John Slidell as his special envoy to Mexico City to purchase California and New Mexico. The Mexicans thought the visitor’s purpose was to offer compensation for their loss of Texas and were furious at the Polk administration. They refused to receive Slidell.
While Slidell was in Mexico, Polk sent General Zachary Taylor with troops to a border area claimed by both countries as a show of force.
The Slidell rebuff so angered Polk that he wrote in his diary it was “ample cause of war.” While Polk was considering asking Congress for a declaration of war, Taylor had crossed the Rio Grande, occupied the Mexican town of Matamorosm, and had its harbor blockaded.
Then, Mexican troops crossed the Rio Grande and killed 11 American soldiers. This gave Polk a real “cause of war.”In his message to Congress, Polk declared, Mexico “invaded our territory and shed American blood upon the American soil.”
The Mexican move across the river had been a blunder, but it was too late. Led by the first generation of generals professionally schooled at West Point, the U.S. Army moved swiftly.
Under General Stephen W. Kearny, they captured New Mexico by early summer. In California, Captain John C. Fremont joined forces with a settler uprising, the Bear Flag Revolt, in an effort to overthrow Mexican rule of the province.
General Kearny’s army marched from New Mexico to Los Angeles where it effectively brought the war to an end in California. Meanwhile, the U.S. negotiated secretly with deposed Mexican President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna (overthrown in 1844) to return to Mexico to persuade the then-leaders to sell California and New Mexico to the U.S.
Once there, the duplicitous Santa Anna declared himself president again and set about to drive the American army out of his country. He failed, as Generals Taylor and Winfield Scott’s army routed the Mexican forces. Mexico City fell in September 1847. Although Mexico did not surrender formally until early the next year, the war was effectively over.
The president sent Nicholas Trist as his envoy to Mexico to negotiate a peace treaty. Polk’s envoy succeeded in expanding U.S. territory by one-third (1.2 million square miles), with all of California, Nevada and Utah, most of Arizona and parts of New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming.
In March 1848 the Congress ratified the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The Wilmot Proviso, offered at the time, brought the possibility of slavery in the new territories into debate and was defeated. Many Whigs thought expansion of slave territory was Polk’s motivation. It wasn’t, as he confided to his diary. Although a slave owner (by inheritance), he was neither a staunch defender nor opponent of the institution.
By the end of his term James Polk had met all four of his goals, his promises. He had expanded the country all the way to the Pacific Coast.
Peter Hannaford believed that California was the jewel in Polk’s prize, with its superb natural bay at San Francisco. He told me that Polk believed that this area would become a great trade hub across the Pacific one day —and Polk was right.
Polk’s great triumph was unappreciated by anti-slavery Whigs and under-appreciated by some Democrats at the time. He kept his promise to be a one-term president and left office on March 4, 1849 with the inauguration of the General Zachary Taylor (nicknamed Old Rough and Ready) who had achieved fame in the Mexican War.
James and Sarah Polk retired to their home in Nashville, Tennessee. He died a little over three months later.