A Citizen of Columbia, Tenn. remembers James. K. Polk, born November 2nd, 1795
having missed the last memorial day (June 15th) I do not want to miss this one either. This time I proudly present a finding I made on my tours throug the web in search of something about James Polk I did not see before. It pleased me quite a lot, and might please others as well.
If you'd like to read the full text of the following, you might use the link, http://archive.org/details/americanhistori00nashgoog and arrive at the " (1903)". On Page 263 the text from which I quote here begins, introduced by this note:
[The following paper was prepared with much care by the late Judge Nathaniel Baxter, for the Round Table, a journal of high literary order established in Nashville in February, 1890. The Round Table was not a business success, and suspended publication before the appearance of Judge Baxter's contribution. After the discontinuance of the Round Table, Judge Baxter's article appeared in a local paper of very limited circulation, a copy of which could hardly be found now. We reproduce it here because of its great historic interest, being written by a man who was the contemporary and peer of the great men about whom he wrote. Moreover, his description of Governor Polk is a fitting introduction to his executive correspondence, published in this issue.]
Mr. Baxter's account illustrates very well one of my most durable opinions on James Polk, that is: The Tennessean politician Polk looked very different from the Representative and later President Polk in Washington - much more likeable and pleasing. That's anything but surprising, of course. Viewed in their familiar surroundings lots of people look much more pleasing than anywhere else.
Now let's see what Mr. Baxter, a Whig, by the way, has to say about a man who is most often presented as a somewhat boring stiff, and formal fellow with serious and respectful manners:
You ask me to give you some reminiscences of lawyers when I first came to the bar. The request may be an ungenerous method of yours to prove by me perhaps what it would be difficult to prove by any one else, and that is, my age. But whatever the motive, I do not object occasionally to recall the recollections of those by-gone days and by-gone friends.
Mr. Polk was not eminently distinguished for his legal attainments, not for want of natural ability but because his popular manners made the temptation to enter the field of politics irresistible to so young a man, and once in the maelstrom, there was no escape politics was his destiny and the legal profession was measurably abandoned.
From his first entrance into politics in the year he never was out until his Presidential term expired except the four years that James C. Jones was governor, that is, from 1841 until he was elected President in 1844.
I first saw Colonel Polk in 1832, in the afternoon of a hot sultry day, in Franklin. It was at a house there known as "Robertson's Tavern" afterwards, and for many years known as "Ravishes Hotel." On the front of the tavern was a long piazza, perhaps fifty feet in length. Colonel Polk was walking to and fro, apparently absorbed in thought, when presently a travel-worn, dust covered gentleman rode up on horseback, with an umbrella over him, and a pair of saddle-bags under him. He let down his umbrella and dismounted at a "hitching post" that stood in front of the tavern hitched his horse, took off his saddle-bags, and walked into the piazza without ceremony. Colonel Polk met him, offered him his hand and with a smile looked him in the face with an expression of uncertainty and inquiry which seemed to ask the question, "Am I mistaken?" The traveler returned the gaze, with the reply, "You are mistaken. You don't know me." Said Colonel Polk, "I was in doubt Sir, until you spoke; but now I am sure I know you this is Colonel Holman, of Lincoln County." "That is my name," replied the traveler, "and I can tell you the time, place and circumstance of our first and only meeting that I now recall."
He then proceeded to mention the time, place and occasion, which was at a Fourth of July barbecue, somewhere, I think, in Lincoln County, and mentioned a conversation they had on that occasion. They then reckoned the time that had elapsed, and it had been ten years. Colonel Holman then said, "I have seen you Colonel Polk, and heard you speak twice since then, but had no conversation with you on either occasion, and I am sure you did not know that I was one of your auditors, either time. You must have a most remarkable memory." To which Colonel Polk made this reply: "Colonel Holman, I don't think I was ever introduced to a man and talked with him ten minutes, that I ever afterwards forgot him."
He was then 37 or 38 years old. His person was handsome and attractive. From memory I should guess he was about five feet, ten inches, erect in his carriage, symmetrical in form, excellent constitution, with unusual muscular strength and activity, with great capacity for physical labor and endurance. I should judge him to have weighed 155 or 160 pounds. His hair was coal black, the complexion a little dark, with a keen pair of steel grey eyes, set well back in his head. His mouth was handsome and expressive, his lips were neither thick nor thin, but inclined to thin. He never wore beard. His forehead was rather broad than high. There was no surplus flesh about his face nor any want of flesh. His chin was well proportioned with his face. The whole face, taken together, was clear cut, flexible and expressive, with aristocratic consciousness of superiority to the common mass. He dressed well.
The schoolboys had got to discussing the subject in their debating clubs in Columbia and one of them had gone so far as to say he hoped that if war did result from General Jackson's policy, the first ball fired from a French cannon might strike General Jackson's head and cut it off close to his shoulders.
Colonel Polk, referring to this speech said: "Do you know, gentlemen, what I think ought to be done with a boy who would utter such a sentiment against that brave old Hero and Patriot, who stood like a wall of fire when England hurled her avalanche of brutal myrmidons upon the ramparts of New Orleans, yelling like demons, their beastly watchword "Beauty and Booty," and when the lives and honors of our fair women had no shelter from the storm but his gallant heart, his wise head, his strong arm and indomitable courage? I don't know how other fathers feel, but if I had a boy, and he were to utter such a sentiment, I think I should take him out behind the house after dark and I would anoint him with hickory oil and rub it in until it produced such a glow that he would feel all next day like he had been sitting on an oven lid heated to a cherry red."
His style of oratory was peculiarly his own. It was singularly popular. It was sufficiently grave and dignified to meet the demand of the cultured and refined. It was sufficiently waggish and humorous to bring the shouts and huzzas from the "wool hat b'hoys." There was something in his manner and delivery that suggested the idea of labor, effort, power of a giant defending himself against the onslaught of a thousand assailants, deliberate yet vehement, and he won the sympathy of his auditors by the gallantry and strength with which he downed each foeman with whom he grappled. He was a tribune, and his style, forensic.
His gestures, though not too frequent, were vigorous and nervous, and though not theatrical in the ordinary sense of that term, yet the features were exceedingly flexible, and he often expressed more with his eyes and the contortions of his face, than he uttered with his tongue. His innuendoes expressed more than he uttered. His powers of ridicule were prominent, and but few men excelled him in the art. His anecdotes were sufficiently numerous and always well selected and happily applied as well to the subject as to the audience.
He was not very imaginative. He generally kept below the clouds. He seldom indulged in flowers of speech but sometimes he did, and in my boyhood days, I thought some of them were grand and sublime. And so did the crowd to whom they were addressed. It was a promiscuous crowd. One of them so impressed me with its sublimity, I have never forgotten it. He was defending General Jackson against his wicked malignersand wound up his defense with a glowing eulogy upon his character and the heroic service he had rendered his country, and when he came to speak of the battle of New Orleans, he said "he grappled with the British lion on the plains of New Orleans and when he rose victorious from the bloody field, he shook from his gory locks the blood of his country's enemies." The discription may seem unique but expressed with his peculiar emphasis and manner, it made the groundlings howl. It was the proper thing to say to those to whom it was addressed.
There was much sameness in Mr. Polk's speeches during the years I used to hear him, that is from 1834 to 1844. It was mostly during the formation period of the old Whig party in Tennessee, and embraced the period when John Bell, Hugh L. White and other leading politicians in Tennessee, split off from General Jackson and refused to support Mr. Van Buren. I don't know, but I don't believe Mr. Van Buren was a great favorite with Mr. Polk. In this conjecture, however, I may do him injustice, for I was not in Mr. Polk's political confidence and never knew anything of his views, either of men or measures, beyond what he proclaimed from the housetops, or at least from the stump, or through the newspapers.
But Mr. Polk was a partisan in politics, was a Democrat and a member of the Democratic party, and nothing but treason to his country could ever have shaken his loyalty to his party; and without stopping to weigh the consequence to his future fortunes, he threw himself into the breach, ranged himself by the side of General Jackson and hoisted the Van Buren flag and fought the battle most gallantly. In his speeches, he dealt but little in the abstract, philosophy or in explaining the reason which led through settled principles from cause to effect. In guiding a constituency of plain, uncultured men, he found it much more easy to reach their hearts than their heads. If a measure was obnoxious to him and he desired to defeat it, he always felt sure of his game, if he could connect it with some man or political party who had already become odious to his constituents. And vice versa, if he desired to sustain a measure, he would if possible, connect it in some way with some man or party known to be popular with his constituents.
Hence, in fighting the uprising Whig party of that day, he sought to connect it with the Old Blue Light Federal party that became so odious during the war of 1812 and whose infamy had been kept fresh and green in the memory of his constituency; and contrasted the Democratic party by associating it with General Jackson who had vanquished the British Lion and whom they all knew and worshipped and with Thomas Jefferson who had vanquished the Federalist party and Aaron Burr, and drove them from the councils of the nation into the shadows of shame and obscurity.
He would then go back to Alexander Hamilton and enlarge upon his idea of royalty and strong government. From Hamilton's head he would step over Washington's in silence on to the head of John Adams the elder, and expatiate upon the alien and sedition laws of his administration. From Adams the elder, he would pay his respects to the Hartford Convention; he would then leap over to John Q. Adams, the son of the old autocrat, and then dwell upon the "bargaining, intrigue and corruption," between him and Henry Clay by which General Jackson had been cheated out of the Presidency and their people out of their votes.
And then there was Henry Clay, the head and leader of the Whig party, which fixed the descent of the new light Whig party by direct line from the Old Blue Light Federal Party. This was the skeleton sketch of the pedigree of the new Whig party; but the skeleton of the family tree was filled out with collateral branches of abolitionists like clusters of grapes overhanging the whole tree and what true Southern man could afford to be found in company with such a family ?
After thus paying his respects to the Whig party, he would then turn to his "labor of love" and deraign the Democratic party from Thomas Jefferson, through Madison, Monroe and down to Jackson, the Ajax of all that was great and good. His eulogy upon Jackson was the conclusion of his speech. This was the general tenor of every speech I ever heard him make, from the first outcropping of the Whig party down to his election to the Presidency. True he would sometimes spice it with a short discussion of the tariff, then again with a discussion of the United States Bank, or sometimes with the Sub-treasury and other political topics of the day. But I don't think he ever neglected to deraign the pedigree of the Whig party.
But notwithstanding his speeches were, to some extent, "a twice told tale," they were so spiced with sarcasm, anecdote, wit, humor and manner and the undefinable magnetism of the man, if you ever came within sight of him and in hearing of his voice, you could never leave until he finished, and this, whether you were Whig or Democrat.
Mr. Polk was the youngest man who had occupied the presidential chair, up to the date of his election, and he looked quite as young as he was. His hair was crow black, and if any gray hairs had made their appearance, they were so few as not to be noticeable. He was springy, active and energetic in all his movements, and was to all appearance a young man.
Mrs. Polk was some eight or ten years his junior, and had been even less impressed with the scars of time than he had. Though a very handsome woman, she never passed as a belle or a beauty her ambition never sought or valued that sort of distinction. She was her husband's wife and monopolized his affections as fully as any wife ever did, and with that, the measure of her ambition was full. But she had more elements of attractiveness and popularity more of that nature which draws upon the admiration and sympathy of men and women, and make everybody, regardless of party politics, desire her success and happiness in life, than is often found in her sex; and beyond all question much of her husband's success in life was due, or at least was helped on largely by, the kindly feelings and admiration that every one felt for her who had the honor of her acquaintance. I never saw a Whig so vile that he would not have been pleased to see her in the White House, if she could have gotten there without her husband.
I resided in Columbia at the time Mr. Polk was elected President. Though opposed to him in politics, I always admired him as a man, and just before he left for Washington I called on him at his office to pay him my respects, and in the course of conversation remarked to him, "I suppose you will visit us occasionally during your term." In reply he said: "We never know what is in the future, but at present I don't think it probable I shall be in Tennessee again until my term expires. There is always enough that requires the personal attention of a President to occupy all his time, and you know it is not my habit to turn over to agents what my duty requires I should do myself." And I don't think he was in Tennessee during his term.
It was during this time that I removed from Columbia to Nashville. Business called me back to Columbia. As I was returning home again, in company with Chancellor Cahal, whom should we meet on the road but the ex-President and his wife traveling alone, in a private carriage. They were returning from Washington to their home in Columbia. Mrs. Polk looked as natural as life, with scarce a perceptible change in the four years of absence. But Mr. Polk had changed until I scarcely knew him. From a pure black, his hair had become perfectly white. It did not change to a silver gray, but to a milk white. In his face was a sensatorial gravity more sedate than when he left Columbia. He looked care-worn and tired. But upon meeting old acquaintances from his old home he brightened up and resumed his quondam cheerfulness. When we parted Chancellor Cahal said to me: "You have now seen the difference between the rising and the setting sun. When he left for Washington, his escorts were thousands. Now that his power and patronage is gone, his faithful wife alone remains by his side, and doubtless he is glad they are gone."
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