James K. Who? If you’re like most Americans, your knowledge of the presidents ended after you were forced to memorize their names in the fourth grade. And that’s a shame, because some amazing guys are hidden among their ranks. Presidents Day is the ideal opportunity to tell you about one of them.
James K. Polk is one of my all-time favorite presidents. Seriously.
Why, you ask? For starters, I played Little League baseball in Joplin, Missouri back in 1973 with a kid who was a Polk descendant. (Nobody would make that up; if you’re going to lie about having a presidential ancestor, you’d pick Washington or Jefferson or someone whose face made it to a coin or currency.) Anyway, that sparked an interest in Polk, and I discovered he was one of the rare ones who said what he meant and meant what he said.
He did the usual pre-presidential stuff: served in Congress, including a stint as Speaker of the House, and was Governor or Tennessee. He was elected president in 1844.
In his inaugural address in 1845, Polk spelled out four specific goals for his presidency:
* reduce tariffs, which he did… a kind of forerunner of the late 20th Century free trade agreements;
* reestablish the Independent Treasury System, which he did… and which lasted until the Internal Revenue Service replaced it nearly 70 years later;
* settle a serious border dispute in the Pacific Northwest with Britain, which he did… and which permanently established our western border with Canada, creating one of the most successful best buddy international friendships in the world;
* win the Southwest territory from Mexico, which he did (thanks to the Mexican War)… giving us California, Nevada, Utah and parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah – plus the massive amounts of gold and silver that were later discovered there.
Polk literally made it possible for generations of schoolkids to sing, “From sea to shing sea.”
Now here’s the most amazing part of all: he accomplished everything he set out to do in just one term as president. He didn’t try to hold on to the job forever like so many others. He simply finished his duties, packed up and handed over the reins to Zachary Taylor… without seeking reelection. Imagine that happening today! Upon leaving office, he went home to Tennessee and promptly died 90 days later. (Trivia: Polk is buried on the lawn of Tennessee’s capitol in Nashville, the only U.S. President whose grave is on the grounds of a state capitol.)
Clear goals, all achieved in a single term, then a “mission accomplished” return home. That’s my kind of president!