Happy birthday to a President that I've have an obsession with ever since one of my favourite musical artists wrote about him. I'm referring of course to "Mister James K. Polk our eleventh President, Young Hickory, Napoleon of the Stump" to quote a line from the song by They Might Be Giants.
James Knox Polk was born on November 2, 1795 (216 years ago tomorrow) in a farmhouse (possibly a "log" cabin) in what is now Pineville, North Carolina in Mecklenburg County, just outside Charlotte. His father, Samuel Polk, was a slaveholder, successful farmer and surveyor. His mother, Jane Polk (maiden name Knox), was a descendant of a brother of the Scottish religious reformer John Knox. She named her firstborn child, our subject, after her father James Knox.
James Polk's family moved to Tennessee in 1806. He studied law in Nashville under lawyer Felix Grundy in 1819 and in 1822 Polk joined the local militia and rose to the rank of captain, and was soon promoted to colonel. Polk became quite the orator, earning him the nickname "Napoleon of the Stump." Polk was an admirer of Andrew Jackson. He became a Democrat, and was elected to the House of Representative, serving as the 17th Speaker of the House of Representatives (18351839) and later as the 12th Governor of Tennessee (18391841).
Polk lost his bid for re-election as governor in 1841 and everyone assumed that his political career was over. But when the 1844 Democratic convention deadlocked, Polk was the surprise "dark horse" candidate for president in 1844. He defeated the favourite Henry Clay of the Whig Party by promising to annex Texas.
Polk was a strong president, despite the fact that he announced in his inaugural address that he only intended to serve one term. As President he threatened war with Britain over the issue of which nation owned the Oregon Country, before reaching a deal to split the region with Britain. When Mexico rejected American annexation of Texas, Polk led the nation to a sweeping victory in the Mexican-American War, which gave the United States most of its present Southwest. He secured passage of the Walker tariff of 1846, which had low rates that pleased his native South, and he established a treasury system that lasted until 1913. He also oversaw the opening of the U.S. Naval Academy and the Smithsonian Institution, the groundbreaking for the Washington Monument, and the issuance of the first postage stamps in the United States.
Polk kept his promise to serve only one term and did not run for reelection. By then the job may have literally killed him. He died of cholera three months after his term ended. Scholars have ranked him favorably on the list of greatest presidents for his ability to set an agenda and achieve all of it. Polk has been the subject of a number of recent biographies including Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America by Walter Borneman, and A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent by Robert W. Merry.
Oh and for a good time, pay a visit to Polk House located at 301 West 7th St., Columbia, Tennessee. I once drove all the way from Pensecola, Florida to Polk House and despite the long drive, a good time was had by all!