Why, why, did he die?
- If Polk really died of cholera plus overwork how can it be that he survived for 13 days after the disease broke out? One would have expected that a cholera victim who was still recovering from nearly complete physical exhaustion would have belonged to the portion who succumbed quickly. I'd say it was something that merely resembled cholera whatever it was.
I've already uttered the opinion that Polk's death was a multicausal event, and may have named as causes:
There had been chronic exhaustion by continuos exertion and acute exhaustion by the activities and excitements near the end of his therm, including the nearly sleepless night from 3rd to 4th March. It seems that Polk was rather good at recovering quickly, but he did not give himself time to recover.
Or would he have set out on the jourey to Tennessee before having some rest in a quiet resort near Washington if he wasn't homesick.
- numerous invitations to stay at various places on his return home.
That's what he got for achieving a lot of things by which his Southern fellow-citizens were highly pleased.
- craving for appreciation
I caused the acceptance of too many invitations, making his way home very long. In this place I'd like to mention that Polk might have had still different motives to chose the circuitous way on which he went home. Somehow I got it in my head that Polk had liked travelling all his life, especially on ships (conspicuously frequent mentioning of ships' names in his diary suggested to me that ships interested, or even fascinated him). So I got the idea that he wanted to take the opportunity of enjoying a journey (for which the cities who had invited him payed much of the costs), including periods of sea voyage and a full journey up the Mississippi. Why should he not have shared the fascination with "Old Man River" of so many fellow Americans? One may also argue that he had premonitions of an early death and wanted to take the opportunity of seeing some places, because it might be the last opportunity he had.
- rapid change of lifestyle and diet
Such changes would affect a creature of habit with digestion problems like Polk much more than the averagely flexible and healthy individual.
- emontional confusion
It was multicausal in itself, brought on by the mentioned rapid change and also by kind of a shock over a display of applause and affection for which he was not sufficiently prepared. One may wonder whether his religious soul gave red alert for sinful enjoyment while his worldly psyche, starved for acknowledgement was ready to revel in the emotional reward for years of largely unappreciated toil and trouble. But this conflict was not even needen to cause disturbancd. Soon the display of people's applause became something that could no longer be pure joy, just for being entirely too much of a good thing, if not a threat to health and wellbeing of the entire system no matter how dearly a part of it longed for recognition.
- unexpected extreme weather conditions from summer heat in March to killing frosts in April. "I had left snow and ice at Washington not four days ago, and now I found myself in the midst of summer heat" says Polk's diary on 9th March while on the 6th he wrote about effects of a severe cold. Entries in his diary before and after these make clear that he suffered much from great heat. All the same Polk made it all the way round the country from Washington over New Orelans to Smithland on the Ohio before he declared himself sick enough to stay in bed for some days. It beats me how a person who could endure this was ever called "frail". I'd think that a strong constitution is needed for such endurance.
- the common pension shock
Early death, initiated by a personal crisis over a sudden lack of a fulfilling occupation and social function is a well-known phenomenon, although it is not too clear how exactly it comes to pass. It may be linked with previous overwork in many cases, but I do not think that all cases comprise problems with overwork. Rather often retirement is the beginning of a marriage crisis, and Polk might have been on the way to one, simply because he was not used to be alone with his wife. If Sarah was going to develop fussing over Jamie's health into an art form there was severe crisis ahead.
- prevention from rest by the explosion of a gunpowder Magazine at Nashville
This was perhaps the strangest of all cooperating causes which led to Polk's death. By this explosion the renovation of the mansion which Polk had bought as his new home (it should have been finished by 1st January, 1849) got protracted for weeks on end, because some badly damaged parts of the house had to be rebuilt. Polk might have survived if he could have moved in on 2nd April to have rest. Instead the Polks immediately went to visit their relations in Columbia and Murfreesborough, where they stayed for several days at each place. Though they might have gone to see their relations at once (homesickness) they might have returned earlier, had they known that a comfortable new house was awaiting their return. When they moved in at last on 24th April, 1849 there was no settling down in agreable circumstances. The house was still in a chaotic condition and needed their own efforts in arranging it.
- the good opportunity
now that's a reason for dying which not everyone might see at work. Yet relatively soon after getting aquainted with Polk I got the impression that he might have died because something had convinced him that it was time for him to die. The diary tells that he did several things to "put his house in order": In Washington already he had paid his debts and made a last will, in Nashville he settled a dispute over an avenue to his premises with a neighbour, payed all he owed to the building contractor he had hired, although the work was not yet finished, and bought two carriage horses he needed. Dusinberre (you might remember him) tell us that the Ex-Slavemaster-President purchased six new slaves. So all was done to afford his widow-to-be a life at her ease.
Whatever caused the symptoms which Polk developed when cholera came to Nashville did he perhaps take them for the definite call hence? A call which he could accept even with gratitude because it came at a time when his life had just arrived at a stage where it was easy to leave: Old tasks fulfilled, rewards enjoyed, new ventures not yet begun. If one grants Polk that he was genuinely religious (I do) one might suppose that he felt he should comply with God's will (or what he took for it) without "murmering", so as Mum had told him sundry times. Else, one cannot exclude the possiblity that conscience bit him and caused him to believe that dying at fifty-three was the earthly punishment he had deserved for starting a war and that accepting it willingly would save him from going to hell for it.
However, we don't know what he could have overcome and what not.