California Literary Review

James K. Polk by John Seigenthaler

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April 22nd, 2007 at 9:01 am

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James K. Polk
by John Seigenthaler
Henry Holt & Company, 188 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★☆☆

The Birth of the American Empire

Author John Seigenthaler has written an interesting and informative biography of the eleventh president of the United States, James Knox Polk. It is a book that permits the constant reader the opportunity to return to those halcyon days when political passions might not have been a distant second to the more mundane predilections of men. Society was in flux; the industrial revolution was on the horizon soon to give birth to “unbridled market capitalism” and the rise of the proletariat. The nation was expanding with all the promise that portended. New England’s manufacturers were gaining dominance over the agrarians. Jefferson’s republicanism, already in decline, was coming under intense pressure.

The men of this era were the second generation, to be true. Most historians agree that they were not quite up to snuff with a Jefferson, Adams, or a Washington but there were shining stars in this political coterie. Consider President Martin Van Buren. The short, rotund, New Yorker bearing the sobriquet, “the Red Fox of Kinderhook,” was elected president in 1836, and in the words of historian/economist Jeffery Hummel was, “…the greatest president in American history.” A bold statement to be sure, but let’s review Professor Hummel’s reasons: Van Buren was a constitutionalist, republican, and Jeffersonian of the first order; he refused to enact relief measures during the Panic of 1837 and allowed the economy to recover both naturally and rapidly, he avoided war on several occasions by negotiating with Great Britain over certain Canadian disputes and with Mexico concerning the annexation of the Republic of Texas, he kept tariffs low and “opposed government-funded internal improvements” angering the previously mentioned “monied interests,” and it was his initiative that finally came to fruition in Polk’s term that resulted in the establishment of the “Independent Treasury.” Now that’s a president! No blood or treasury squandered during his term, corruption stifled, and no expansion of federal authority!

Another major political player during this period was the irascible John C. Calhoun of South Carolina. Calhoun served as a senator, vice-president, and secretary of state. He was a brilliant rhetorician, gifted writer, and a political philosopher whose work ranks with any of the founders. Calhoun’s writings define the man as the last Jeffersonian. He argued that the “survival of the federal regime depended on the restraint of its power,” and he cloaked himself in the constitutional prerogative, states rights, which coupled with his numerous attempts at maintaining the power of the slave states takes him to the top of the list of politically incorrect Americans. Therefore, he is a pariah and not to be mentioned without hurtling a calumny or slur his way, a rule to which Mr. Seigenthaler dutifully acquiesces.

While Van Buren and Calhoun were among the most ideological of American statesmen, Henry Clay, the “Great Compromiser” was not. Clay was for centralizing power in the federal regime by raising the tariff and utilizing “internal improvements” as a tool for consolidation. Something of a political prostitute, Clay was, unsurprisingly, Abraham Lincoln’s idol.

But this is a biography of President James K. Polk, nicknamed “Young Hickory,” after his benefactor, Andrew Jackson, and the author meticulously examines Polk’s participation, first as a congressman, then as president during this fascinating era.

Polk was a successful Tennessee lawyer, legislator, and congressman who by luck and guile was nominated president by the Democratic Party (the Democracy) when the party favorite, Martin Van Buren, came out against annexing the Republic of Texas. A few months later, on November 5, 1844, he was very narrowly elected president after his opponent, the Whig nominee, Henry Clay, made the same blunder.

Polk had defined four goals for his one term presidency: lower the tariff, institute Van Buren’s independent treasury, bring Oregon into the Union, and annex Texas. He was wonderfully successful. However, the author, in discussing elements of Polk’s presidency, cannot refrain from making the unnecessary remark or fatuous analysis. As an example, when discussing the controversy surrounding the sexual preferences of Polk’s Secretary of State (and later president), James Buchanan, Seigenthaler writes: “…times were no more sympathetic to homosexuality in the mid-nineteenth century than in today’s world of homophobia.” In another chapter while discussing why Polk fails to be mentioned with the “great” presidents he writes: “Polk suffers because historians instinctively measure his accomplishments, which were substantial, alongside, his presidential personality, which was anal.” There is no need to explain the failure of Freudian historical analysis or the desire of contemporary historians to measure past events by today’s moral and intellectual miasma.

The author’s final chapters are really very well done and make the book. He accurately points out that opposition to Polk’s Mexican war soon developed. Seigenthaler is to be applauded for including a description of Congressman Lincoln’s speech given following the House of Representatives’ vote that denounced the “conflict” as “a war unnecessarily and unconstitutionally begun by the President of the United States.” Lincoln, in paying homage to the heroes of the Texas rebellion, declared: “Any people anywhere have the right to rise up, and shake off the existing government, and form one that suits them better.” Lincolnites of every stripe stutter and stammer when that quote is mentioned! Obviously, Lincoln did not believe the South should enjoy the Right of Revolution.

James Polk succeeded in accomplishing his objectives in four years but at a price. The author points out that Polk; “…was an obsessed workaholic, a perfectionist, a micromanager…” and his work habits may have contributed to an early demise. He succumbed on June 15, 1849 just a few months after leaving office. He had the good form to be baptized into the Methodist Church a few weeks before his death.

Seigenthaler’s biography, part of The President’s Series edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., does an excellent job of explaining the issues and political turmoil confronting the president during that tumultuous era. But, the reader must be aware of a certain liberal bias that, unfortunately, is all too prevalent.

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