On this day, November 2nd, in 1795, a scant 215 years ago today, my favourite President, James Knox Polk, was born in Meckleberg County, North Carolina. He was the eldest of ten children and was born in a farmhouse, probably a log cabin, in what is now Pineville, North Carolina, just outside of Charlotte. His father, Samuel Polk, was a successful farmer and surveyor of Scots-Irish descent. His mother, Jane Polk (née Knox), was a descendant of a brother of the Scottish religious reformer John Knox and named her firstborn after her father James Knox.
In this group I've written about the painful surgery that Polk had when he was 17 to remove stones from his urinary tract, which probably accounted for the fact that he and his wife Sarah never had any little Polks. Polk had a roller coaster political career, alternately winning and losing elections. He was elected to congress at age 29 and served for 14 years, becoming Speaker of the House twice. (He is the only President to have ever held that office). He returned home to win an election as Governor of Tennessee, but lost in his bid to win re-election. Everyone thought his political career was toast, but he was a protege of Andrew Jackson, and Old Hickory had the idea that in 1844 Polk (nicknamed Young Hickory) would make a great Vice-President for Jackson's own Veep, Martin Van Buren. But the Democrats were ticked off at Van Buren for his opposition to the annexation of Texas, and in a deadlocked convention, Polk emerged as the nominee on the 9th ballot.
Veteran Senator Henry Clay was the Whig candidate for President that year, and Clay though he had the election in the bag, running against a nobody like Polk. In fact Clay's campaign slogan was "who is James K. Polk?" implying that his opponent was a no-name brand. But Clay, like Van Buren, lost support over his position on the annexation of Texas, and a strong third party vote for the Liberty Party siphoned off votes that might otherwise have gone to Clay. Polk won the election winning 170 electoral votes to Clay's 105.
What kind of President was Polk (besides being the first and only President to wear a mullet)? One of my favourite bands, They Might Be Giants, put it best in their song, appropriately named (see the video in the files section):
"In four short years he met his every goal
He seized the whole southwest from Mexico
Made sure the tarriffs fell
And made the English sell the Oregon territory
He built an independent treasury
Having done all this he sought no second term..."
My boy Jimmy did all that. Tense negotiations with Great Britain resulted with American annexation of the Oregon Territory south of the 49th Parallel. Following a controversial two-year war, Mexico ceded New Mexico and California to the United States. (A young Illinois Congressman named Abraham Lincoln accused Polk of starting the war on bogus grounds Polk said that Mexicans killed US troops on American soil, when it was probably disputed territory). Polk fought with his generals, one of whom (Zachary Taylor) ended up as Polk's successor as President. During Polk's term of office, the United States acquired over 800,000 square miles of land and extended its boundary to the Pacific Ocean. Polk also met his economic goals of lowering tariffs and establishing an independent Federal Treasury. What a stud!
But the job really aged him. He was a micromanger and a workaholic and the job may have literally killed him. He had the shortest retirement of any president, a scant 103 days, before passing away one June 15, 1849, from cholera. Perhaps the sweetest thing about the man was his last words, spoken to his wife Sarah. Author Walter Borneman in his 2008 book entitled Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America, puts it much better than I can:
"At twenty minutes before five on the afternoon of June 15, 1849, James Knox Polk breathed his last. Reportedly, his final words were 'I love you Sarah, for all eternity, I love you.' Even if this utterance was embellished, there was nothing in Polk's life to suggest that the sentiment behind it was not true."
Happy birthday POTUS #11.