Tuesday, June 7, 2016

James K. Polk: The Last Jacksonian President

Andrew Jackson was a bold "champion of the common man."  So when he was elected in a landslide victory in 1828, he gave birth to a movement that became known as the Jacksonian Movement or the Jacksonian Democracy.  So while he was the first, the last Jacksonian President was James K. Polk, the eleventh president of the United States.

He was born in North Carolina, and as a young lawyer from Tennessee, and later state legislator, he became good friends with Andrew Jackson.  Later, as a member of the House of Representatives, Polk was a big supporter in Jackson's fight against the Second Bank of the United States. He was Speaker of the House from 1835-1839, only leaving to become governor of Tennessee.  As a Jacksonian Democrat with the support of Andrew Jackson, he was in a prime position to becoming a future president.

Like Jackson, Polk was a huge supporter of expansion, and he believed the United States should annex Texas (a popular idea in the South) and claim Oregon (a popular idea in the North). He also supported acquiring California.

It should be understood here that Polk did understand that slavery was a big issue at the time.  However, he was a slave owner, and he believed slavery was made legal by the Constitution, and a solid boundary had been created with the Missouri Compromise of 1820, and so to him slavery was not an issue.

Still, Polk believed new territories in New Mexico and California should not allow slavery.  So, regardless of what he was thinking about this issue, it was not going to be resolved by adding new territory -- rather, it would only get worse.  So, while his ambitions should have been considered an overall good thing and cause for excitement, it only added tensions between the North and South.

Still, he had no ambitions (that were known publicly anyway) of becoming the presidential nominee when he attended the 1844 democratic convention.  Rather, he had fully supported Martin Van Buren, and was hoping to become his Vice President.

Van Buren, however, had trouble gaining enough support from western democrats, who yearned for the immediate annexation of Texas.  Since Polk did support the annexation, they gave their support to him instead.  Van Buren, being a good sport, gave his delegates to Polk, who in turn won the nomination.

So, Polk correctly positioned himself in a spot where he gained a lot of support.  He correctly understood the modern wave of support for expansion, or "Manifest Destiny," and he ran the wave of this support to becoming his parties nominee.

In this way, Polk became what many now refer to as the first Dark Horse Candidate, or the first candidate to come seemingly out of nowhere to earn his parties nomination for president.

As a candidate he made his goals quite clear:  He wanted to settle the Oregon Territory boundary dispute with Great Britain, he wanted to acquire California, he wanted to lower tariffs, and he wanted to establish an independent treasury.  He said if he accomplished all of these goals he would not run for a second term.

The Whigs nominated Henry Clay, who had already lost bids to become president in 1824 and 1832.  Clay wanted to increase the size of the government, and he opposed the idea of annexing Texas.  Some say his efforts to strengthen his position regarding Texas alienated voters in the South and West who strongly supported the annexation. Still, he tried to pull votes from Polk by saying, "Who is James K. Polk?"

The reason the annexation of Texas was such a pressing issue was because of slavery.  Northern states had more representatives in the House, and so they maintained a stronghold there.  Southern states needed to make sure than any new states that entered the union did not throw off the balance in the Senate, where they continued to have an influence.  So the annexation of Texas was strongly supported by southern slave states.

A third candidate, James Birney, was an abolitionist who was the nominee for the Liberty party.  Enough anti-slavery Whigs in the north voted for him that he was able to garnish 2.3% of the popular vote, or enough to give the election to Polk.  James K. Polk then narrowly became the 11th president of the United States.

Before he even took office, John Tyler took the bold step of annexing Texas, and Congress voted to support the annexation.  This left Polk with a big decision of whether he wanted to go to war with Mexico or find some kind of diplomatic solution.  Of course, at the same time, his stance on Oregon risked war with Britain. So it seemed that war was almost inevitable before Polk even set foot in the White House.

Democrats wanted to claim the entire Oregon territory from the California Boundary northward to a latitude 54'40.  A common theme at the time was, "Fifty-Four-Forty or Fight."

Polk understood that nothing short of war would result in the Americans getting all this land. And neither he nor Britain wanted to go to war.  So this called for a compromise with Britain.  He offered to create a boundary between the U.S. and Canada along the 49th Parallel, from the Rockies to the Pacific.

Initially the British declined this offer, and when they did so Polk claimed the entire Oregon area.  Quickly the British decided they had better take the deal.  The only exception they made was the tip of Vancouver Island.  The deal was signed in 1846.  Polk, in this way, was able to avoid war with Britain.

Now he had to deal with Texas and Mexico and California.  Polk sent an envoy to Mexico offering them $20 million (plus a settlement to claims owed to the Americans) for California and New Mexico.  No Mexican leader wanted to sign the deal, particularly considering it meant giving away half the nation.

So the envoy was not well received. So he sent Zachary Taylor to the Rio Grande to increase pressure on Mexico.  The Mexicans saw this as aggression, and they in late April of 1846 they attacked Taylor's forces.

So Polk was unable to avoid war with Mexico.

Despite Northern opposition, Congress declared war. The Americans won many early victories, and by 1848 Mexico the Treaty of Guadalupe was signed, forcing Mexico to cede New Mexico and California in return for only $15 million plus the U.S. would assume any damage claims.  Another part of the treaty drew a line between the U.S. and Mexico at the Rio Grande.

Texas asked to be allowed to join the United States, and this request was accepted.

Polk was constantly bombarded by the Wilmot Proviso, a bill intended to ban slavery in any territory acquired from Mexico.  While the bill was passed the House more than once, but the Senate never supported it.

If there is any criticism of Polk, it's that he did not take up the opportunity to deal with the issue of slavery during his term.  Still, to his credit, he did set goals and he accomplished them all.  And had he made it a goal of his to resolve the slavery issue, it probably would have taken up all of his energy and he may not have accomplished his goal of expanding the nation.

So Polk had succeeded in adding a vast amount of land to the United States.  He had also accomplished his goal of lowering tariffs and creating an independent treasury.  This made him a successful president minus the slavery issue.  He had accomplished this all in only four short years.  As promised, he decided he would not run for re-election.

Indeed, he did add a lot of land to the United States.  But this would increase tensions between the North and the South, moving slavery into the forefront as the main issue in Washington.  So, as Polk left office in March of 1849, with him went the Jacksonian era -- making Polk the last of the Jacksonian Presidents.

He was succeeded into office by Zachary Taylor, a Whig and a man he despised.  Still, it was probably a good thing he did not run for re-election, as he died only three months later, in June of 1849.  He left his estate to his wife under the direction that she free their slaves.