December 01, 2010

smash and grab

while my six-layer russian honey cake is cooling (my work birthday party is tomorrow), i thought we could talk a little about my cousin james.

the polk presidency was unique in so many ways. as i wrote previously, after his election polk outlined 4 goals - to reduce the tariff, to establish an independent treasury, to bring oregon into the union, and to claim california from mexico - and said he would not seek a second term. he did achieve all four, and he did refuse renomination.

the question immediately arises: why can't every president be that forcefully effective? why didn't they all take from the polk playbook? answer: by the end of his presidency, polk had next to no allies. that being only slightly less than the number he started his presidency with.

polk was a compromise presidential candidate - the democrats were deadlocked choosing between martin van buren (again? too northern!) and lewis cass (the fat guy? too southern!). the delegates were too stubborn to switch their votes, but enough of them would decamp to a new nominee. james k. polk, lately the speaker of the house and a protege of andrew jackson's, made everybody happy long enough to get a nomination vote.

you get the feeling he knew he was nobody's dream, so he just dug his heels in and decided to get tons of stuff done, not bothering to make friends. he worked incredibly hard. he only left washington 3 times during his presidency. he often went weeks without even leaving the white house. the politics of expansion had been simmering for a few decades, and he was determined to finish the job.

to back up a little, you'll remember that us presidents up to this point had fallen into the following timeline:

founding fathers
nation builders (my favorite!)

the expansionists are not a thrilling bunch. as merry puts it, "The conquest of other nations' territories on such a scale was an alien experience for America, and it wasn't surprising that no consensus could easily emerge as to how to proceed while preserving the sacred precepts of the Constitution."so the politics of expansion involved a lot of land treaties, voting on territorial governments, and establishing trade routes.

polk was eager to have it all done with. let's just finish off manifest destiny, he said, so we can all focus on compromising over slavery for a while. and look, he did it.

we got ourselves to the mississippi pretty early on. then jefferson bought louisiana a few years later, followed in 1819 by monroe's acquisition of florida from spain. we hung out there for almost 30 years until we added texas, california, and oregon in the space of 4 years. although he shares credit for texas with john tyler, james k. polk increased the size of the US by 500,000 square miles.

but polk is much better know for the mexican-american war, an ambiguous conflict - as ill-defined as it was vaguely unconstitutional - recently making a comeback as a popular comparison to the wars of george w. bush. it was so ill-defined, in fact, that one of the reasons it dragged on was because congress was debating what its purpose was in the first place, and therefore when they could declare that purpose achieved. the war dominates polk's legacy, as it did his time in office. his cabinet - one of the best constructed of its time - splintered over it, and his senior advisers started turning other politicians against polk (james buchanan, who we'll see in a bit when he's the undisputed worst president in US history, was polk's secretary of state, and was a particular snot about it).

in a particularly sad, but very representative, anecdote from his presidency, polk had a falling out with senator thomas hart benton, who had been his closest and must trusted confidante. benton's son-in-law john fremont was being court martialled, and polk (never compromise, never make friends) refused to pull strings to get him out of trouble. the break was so severe, one washington paper reported, "that benton and polk no longer acknowledge each other in church on sundays."

history's one mercy to polk was that the war ended while he was still president, sparing him the "cleaning up polk's mess" victory of a successor. but it wasn't enough to save his reputation, the way winning 1812 had saved madison's. so he left office, having worked himself to the bone. he died 3 months after leaving office.

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