Against many historians, Seigenthaler applauds Polk for achievements that he insists are "nothing short of remarkable, changing forever the geography and economy of the country.” Kirkus Reviews
The story of a pivotal president who watched over our westward expansion and solidified the dream of Jacksonian democracy
James K. Polk was a shrewd and decisive commander in chief, the youngest president elected to guide the still-young nation, who served as Speaker of the House and governor of Tennessee before taking office in 1845. Considered a natural successor to Andrew Jackson, "Young Hickory" miraculously revived his floundering political career by riding a wave of public sentiment in favor of annexing the Republic of Texas to the Union.
Shortly after his inauguration, he settled the disputed Oregon boundary and by 1846 had declared war on Mexico in hopes of annexing California. The considerably smaller American army never lost a battle. At home, however, Polk suffered a political firestorm of antiwar attacks from many fronts. Despite his tremendous accomplishments, he left office an extremely unpopular man, on whom stress had taken such a physical toll that he died within three months of departing Washington. Fellow Tennessean John Seigenthaler traces the life of this president who, as Truman noted, "said what he intended to do and did it."
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James K. Polk
By John Seigenthaler
Times BooksCopyright © 2003 John Seigenthaler
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Bent Twig
Where did they come from, the conflicted character traits that combined to make James K. Polk less than a natural leader, yet justifiably judged among presidents of great achievement?
Edward Cook, whose Life of Florence Nightingale helped illuminate for the world the heroine of the Crimean War, warned biographers about the "natural temptation" to draw too heavily on youthful experiences in explaining the adult. So often, he admonished, writers "magnify some childish incident as prophetic of what is to come thereafter." The child, after all, is not in all things father to the man.
True enough. Nonetheless, Polk's early life offers fascinating clues that perhaps help explain the development of a president with the missionary zeal of a fundamentalist preacher determined to convert the populace to Jackson's Democracy. Polk's oratory fell somewhat short of evangelistic eloquence, but his religion was partisan politics.
Polk's boyhood was marked by several distinctive influences. There was an upsetting religious conflict between his parents. There was the upheaval of the family's move from an established community to an unknown frontier destination. There was a continuing, debilitating pattern of poor health. There was a privileged and focusededucation. But perhaps most influential was his intense political indoctrination at the family hearth. "He grew up imbued with the principles of ... Jefferson," wrote George Bancroft, the historian who served in his cabinet.
His maturation as a Jeffersonian Republican and then as a Jacksonian Democrat is the aspect of his life easiest to track. Eugene McCormac, his biographer, simply concluded that Polk's faith in Republican doctrine was "inherited." It is quite clear that from early childhood both his grandfather and his father engraved on the boy's mind a political creed that never faded. For Ezekiel and Sam Polk, Republican philosophy was their gospel; Jefferson was their Jesus. Born on Little Sugar Creek near Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1795 - just four years after the nation had ratified the Bill of Rights - Polk was three years old when President John Adams signed the Sedition Act, which sought to kill public censure of his Federalist policies. Jim Polk was six by the time Jefferson, having defeated Adams in 1800, pardoned those Republican critics who had been convicted of castigating Federalists under the act.
While the boy was much too young to understand everything he heard around the family table in Mecklenburg County, the demonizing of John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and Federalist principles seemed to comport with what he knew of the world. Jefferson was the first president he remembered, his first political hero, the leader his elders believed in and admired. In simplest terms, there was an ongoing contest between Jefferson's adherents and his enemies, the power elite.
As Polk grew into adulthood, everything he had grasped about the conflict between Federalist and Republican values seemed to reinforce a basic and logical argument that the country would be better served if national government was the declared servant of all the people (or all those who were not slaves) and was barred from acting chiefly as the agent of rich and powerful constituencies. Jackson was the heir to the Jeffersonian philosophy, as Henry Clay was to the creed of Hamilton. Polk knew where he was in that fight, and it became his own.
God and Family
But if there was agreement in the household as it related to politics, there was discord when it came to Polk's early religious life. As a newborn babe, he was thrust into the eye of a spiritual storm. In his Mecklenburg community, where Presbyterianism was as common as patriotism, he was a marked child: unbaptized.
Following their marriage, his parents, Samuel and Jane Knox Polk, attended the Presbyterian congregation at Providence, a farming community a few miles from where they lived along Sugar Creek. Polk's mother was a great-grandniece of John Knox, the religionist who brought the Reformation to Scotland, and was delighted when Sam agreed that their son, born just ten months and seven days after their Christmas Day marriage in 1794, would be given her family name and baptized in her family's tradition.
The moment came when the Reverend James Wallis, a stern and dogmatic pastor, expected the child's parents to affirm their Christian faith. Sam balked. He would make no such avowal. Whereupon Pastor Wallis also balked; no parental commitment to the Christian faith, no baptism, he decreed. It was not until fifty-three years later, on his deathbed, that James K. Polk was christened by a Methodist minister.
The controversy in which the pastor visited the sin of the father on the son had its roots in a two-year-old argument between Reverend Wallis and Sam's opinionated, confrontational, deist father. Ezekiel fell out with the minister in April 1793 after his second wife bore him a stillborn son, who, according to the pastor's doctrinal belief, would be denied admittance to heaven. Grandfather Polk declared unholy war against Reverend Wallis, seeking, without great success, to convert the preacher's church members to deism. Into that abrasive religious environment, Polk was born.
Jim's childhood and formal education were interlaced with religious orientation and tension. Certainly his mother's piety was a positive force. His father's absorbing values were materialistic with a near-religious dedication to commerce, farming, and building wealth.
Soon after his marriage Polk dutifully paid for a pew in the Presbyterian Church, and throughout his life he often found time to attend Sunday services with his wife, Sarah. As a young, ambitious politician, he became a Mason and signed on with the state militia, but never joined a religious congregation.
During Polk's years of public service, as throughout most of the nation's life, religion mattered in society. Alexis de Tocqueville, who arrived from France in 1831 (when Congressman Polk was thirty-six), wrote, "The religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention." He was "astonished" by the "peaceful dominion" of religious tolerance throughout the United States. He was told by clergymen and laity alike that it was due "mainly to the separation of church and state." Tocqueville never met Pastor Wallis but did discover "men full of a fanatical and almost wild spiritualism" across the country. He concluded that "religious insanity is very common in the United States." Separation of church and state, in those days, as now, did not keep preachers out of politics. (Jefferson was attacked during the 1800 presidential campaign by a Connecticut minister for being a "howling atheist.") Nor did the "wall of separation" deter politicians from openly seeking denominational support. (In his first race for Congress Madison pledged to support a Bill of Rights in order to win Baptist backing.)
In his presidential diary, Polk occasionally mentions the quality of a sermon he heard at church with Sarah, but more as if he were a theater critic than a worshipper. The churchgoing was at Sarah's initiative. Most often he notes in his diary that he "accompanied his wife" to church. She had no hesitation in interrupting a Sunday-morning presidential conference by walking into his office and inviting (it may have been a demand) the assembled conferees to attend with her.
Rarely in his life did he 'speak on his religious commitment. When expressing a slight partiality for the Methodist Church, he comes across more as if he were considering which fork in a road to take for a comfortable horseback ride, rather than selecting a path to salvation.
As president, he rarely referred to God in his diary or suggested that he prayed for guidance or heavenly intervention in his life - not even during the war with Mexico. On one occasion, after an angry argument with a preacher, he did "thank God" for the constitutional wall between government and religion. Once, when frustrated by individuals seeking official appointments, he promised that if "a kind Providence [permitted him] length of days and health," he would write "the secret and hitherto unknown history" of the evil workings of government. Again, the deity turned up in the diary when he discussed with his cabinet how to handle the growing difficulties with Great Britain and Mexico. The country should stand firm against both countries, said Polk, "and leave the rest to God and the country." But religion was second to politics in Polk's life.
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