Destiny Made Manifest

Thursday, July 18, 2013 Road Junkies 0 Comments

James K. Polk
COLUMBIA, Tennessee—Prior to the 1844 Democratic National Convention, a nationally obscure Tennessean had bold designs on the vice-presidency.  His political successes in the 1820s and '30s Congress had dried up.  His two-year term as Tennessee governor expired in 1841, and two subsequent efforts at re-election to that office had failed.  What James Knox Polk had on his side, however, was an unexpected political craftiness.  
When former President Martin Van Buren, the leading contender for the presidential nomination, took the wrong side on the question of annexing Texas, the convention became hopelessly deadlocked.  After an indecisive eighth ballot, Polk, who had adroitly bonded with the Van Buren supporters, emerged as the dark horse candidate.  He was unanimously nominated and, due to his stance on the popular issue of expansionism, he defeated perennial Whig candidate Henry Clay in the general election to become America's first president under the age of 50.

Driving to my brother's home south of Nashville, we have often noticed official highway signs indicating the interstate exit for the home of President James K. Polk near Columbia, TN.  Certainly the name is familiar but "James K. Polk" sounded rather undistinguished and even dull.  Without really knowing anything at all about him except that he had once served as our Chief Executive, he seemed easy to dismiss.  But we passed the signs one time too many, and Ken insisted the time had come to visit the home of this little-known U.S. president. 

James K. Polk Ancestral Home, Columbia, TN
Before you read further, ask yourself.  What do you know about James Knox Polk?  See what I mean?  Most of us are mired in ignorance about this president and would be hard pressed to name even one accomplishment of his administration.  Before you too dismiss him as one of the nation's inconsequential Oval Office seat warmers, however, listen to what we learned in Columbia.

President Polk (front row, second from R) and his cabinet—the first such group ever photographed.
With the Democratic Party splintered into conflicting factions, Polk needed to galvanize support across all groups to defeat the Whigs.  So he promised to serve only one term, satisfying the various sectors that another prospect for their candidate of choice would come around in just four years.  Perhaps it was this limited window of opportunity that drove Polk to narrow his focus to a very specific list of goals for his administration:  1) reestablish an independent treasury system; 2) reduce tariffs; 3) acquire some or all of Oregon Country; and 4) acquire California and New Mexico from Mexico.

Many years later the plain spoken Harry S. Truman admiringly said of Polk:  "He said what he intended to do and did it."  Yes, Polk did secure passage of a law which reduced tariffs, and he established a treasury system that remained in effect until 1913.  But his most lasting accomplishment was the expansion of the United States to the Pacific Ocean. Through diplomatic negotiations, annexation, and a war with Mexico, the territory of the United States was increased by a third during Polk's four years in office.

U.S. expansion.  Areas marked with a star were acquired during Polk's term.
Polk's unbending determination joined forces with his fierce work ethic and political adroitness, spurring him to accomplish all that he set out to do.  But this resolute devotion to his goals took a toll on his health.  James K. Polk entered the White House in 1845 as a robust and hardy 49-year-old, eager to take on whatever challenges came his way.  
By the time his successor was sworn in four years later, the deep lines on the President's face and dark circles under his eyes betrayed Polk's exhaustion.  Though he had lost weight and vigor, he embarked on an extended good will trip to several Southern states upon his retirement.  It is believed that Polk contracted cholera in New Orleans.  Three months after leaving office, the 53-year-old Polk died at Polk Place, his new home in Nashville.

The home's kitchen was housed in a separate building.  The fountain came from the Polks' Nashville home.
The Polk Ancestral Home in Columbia, where we learned about this frequently overlooked president, was built by Polk's father Samuel in 1816 while James was a student at the University of North Carolina.  The future president lived in the house only briefly as he was beginning his law career.  But the Nashville home where he died was what Polk intended as his legacy.  
Since he and his wife Sarah had no children, Polk executed a will bequeathing Polk Place to the state of Tennessee to be operated as a museum dedicated to his presidential administration.  When Sarah died in 1891, fifty-five sons and daughters of Polk's long-dead brothers and sisters came forward to challenge the will in court.  They succeeded in overturning the will and sold Polk Place to a developer, who demolished it, but not before the state rescued the remains and tomb of Polk and his wife and relocated them to the state capitol grounds.

Some of the personal items and memorabilia from Polk Place were salvaged and transferred to the home in Columbia.  Furniture, dishes, portraits, and other irreplaceable artifacts were saved and preserved.  If eBay had been available to his covetous nieces and nephews in the 19th century, perhaps none of the Polks' possessions would remain.

Dining room at Polk Ancestral Home with dishes used at White House and portraits of James and Sarah Polk
In addition to the restored family house, this historic site includes the former home of Polk's sister, which has been adapted for use as a museum interpreting the lives of President and Mrs. Polk.  Some interesting facts about James Knox Polk are offered for your edification and enjoyment.
  • At the age of 17, Polk had successful surgery to remove kidney stones.  He was fully awake during the procedure with only a little brandy as anesthesia.

  • Due to the swampy location of the White House, it was traditional for the president and his family to vacate the property during the summer.  Polk was the first president to remain in the executive mansion year-round—no doubt due to his desire to accomplish his complete agenda.

  • While in Congress, Polk served one four-year-term as Speaker of the House, the only president to have done so.  He attempted to bring more order to House procedures.  In a departure from custom, Polk refused to challenge anyone to a duel, regardless of insults to his honor.

  • A protégé of fellow Tennessean Andrew Jackson, Polk was called "Young Hickory" because of his support for Jacksonian policies and initiatives.

  • As president, Polk oversaw the opening of the Naval Academy, the creation of the Smithsonian Institution, the laying of the Washington Monument cornerstone, gas lighting of the Capitol and White House, and the establishment of a uniform election day.

  • America's first postage stamps were issued during the Polk administration.

  • Polk's 103-day retirement was the shortest of any president.

  • Frequently ranked by historians in the top 10 most effective presidents, James K. Polk is often cited as the strongest president between Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln.
If you find yourself curious to learn more about our least-known president of consequence, check out A Country of Vast Designs, Robert Merry's excellent Polk biography.
Excerpt from White House kitchen ledger
No historic site would be complete without a gift shop.  (in the museum next door)