Nov. 2 is birthday of James K. Polk, born in 1795 in a log cabin in what is now Pineville. The first of 10 children of Samuel and Jane Knox Polk, he would go on to become governor of Tennessee and the eleventh president of the United States.
Polk’s name popped up recently during the kerfuffle about who’d succeed Speaker of the House John Boehner. The eventual successor, Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan, was said to fear the job would be a barrier to his ultimate goal of becoming president. Only one speaker has become president: James K. Polk.
Polk’s name will come up again when historians consider where Barack Obama ranks among the nation’s 44 presidents. Polk usually ranks in the top dozen.
James Knox Polk was born into modest surroundings but a rich heritage. His mother’s ancestors included a brother of Scottish religious reformer John Knox. The Scots-Irish Polk family had migrated from Ireland to Pennsylvania in the early 1700s, then in the 1750s had taken the Great Wagon Road to North Carolina.
Among James Polk’s relatives were some of the most prominent citizens of North Carolina, including great-uncle Thomas Polk, a Revolutionary War general and one of the founders of Mecklenburg County and Charlotte.
When James Polk was 10 his family followed other relatives to Tennessee. Samuel Polk prospered there, owning at his death thousands of acres of land and more than 50 slaves.
The family sent James back to the state of his birth in 1816 to attend the University of North Carolina, at that time a school with a five-person faculty and 80 students.
Here’s how William Leuchtenburg, now a professor emeritus of history at the school, described Polk: “An indefatigable self-starter, he was graduated with highest honors in both mathematics and classics; delivered a commencement oration in Latin; and finished first in his class.”
Other members of Polk’s 14-man class would go on to become governor of Florida, paymaster-general of the United States, president of Davidson College, chancellor of the University of the South and Episcopal bishop of Mississippi.
Why do presidential historians think so highly of Polk? Though he served only one term (1845-49), Polk delivered on all “four great measures” he advocated during his campaign. Harry Truman called him a great president because he “said what he intended to do and did it.” Polk’s agenda:
Tariffs. The Whigs, strong in the Northeast and border states, favored taxes on imported goods to protect this nation’s fledgling industries. Polk’s Democrats were strongest in the rural and agricultural South, which had little industry but imported many goods that tariffs made more costly. Polk cut tariffs and encouraged freer trade.
Independent treasury. Polk created the U.S. Treasury to retain and manage federal revenues, removing federal funds from private and state banks.
Oregon. Polk promised to acquire some or all of the Oregon country, where America and Great Britain disagreed about the boundary. His compromise secured territory that’s now Washington, Oregon and Idaho and parts of Montana and Wyoming.
California. Polk promised to acquire California and New Mexico from Mexico. When negotiations stalled, he sent troops to the disputed Rio Grande region. In 1846 war broke out. The 1848 peace agreement reduced Mexico’s size by half and increased our nation’s by a third, adding what are now California, Nevada, Utah, most of Arizona and parts of New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming.
Polk championed Manifest Destiny, the belief that America was destined to span the continent. When his term ended he had expanded the nation by one million square miles, and America reached from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
While most Americans may not remember Polk, he is honored by a pop cultural tribute – the 1996 song “James K. Polk” by the band They Might Be Giants, available on YouTube.
Ed Williams retired in 2008 as editor of The Charlotte Observer’s editorial pages. He is the author of “Liberating Dixie: An Editor’s Life, from Ole Miss to Obama.”