- I'm also looking forward to Travis' record of his Pierce studies.
Pierce is definitely one of the Presidents who should be discussed in
this forum. It can help to find out if how much of the blame for
causing the Civil War is to be put on Polk. Of course, Pierce is an
interesting figure in himself and surely a kind of tragic fellow.
I still wonder if Polk was a tragic figure as I'm still not sure if I
got his record right. Though he seemed to be a tragic hero when I got
acquainted with him I came to regard him as too much of a realist to
be tragic. He was an austere figure, to be sure, but austerity is by
no means tragic in itself as it can offer delights that cheerful
people never enjoy. I'm still moved by Polk's story, but not every
moving life story is a personal tragedy.
I still find that on the picture with his wife he looks like the
spitting image of Macbeth who shall sleep no more, thanks to the grim
lady at his side, but although he fell for a temptation of power like
Shakespeare's protagonist he wasn't overly Macbethish. Since I found
out that the picture was taken when he was just recovering from a
bout of malaria it ceased to inspire me with awe and pity. Pity for
Polk, an emotion that once raged in my system, seems strangely
pointless to me now. I wonder what will become of my pity for Pierce
when I learn more about him. Perhaps it will persist just because it
is not raging.
Polk's diary suggested to me that he was content with his fate on the
whole. No tragic despair or rebellion, just a bit of grumbling.
Reading his daily records had an unexpectedly relaxing and soothing
influence on my system. I wondered how the utterances of a person
that is described as stiff and strained can produce such an effect.
Polk's friends described him as calm and sedate and I tend to believe
them, just because the relaxing effect is not continuous. While Polk
was waiting for the acceptance of Trist's peace treaty by Congress
and the Mexican parliament the gentle rhythm of his writing becomes
disturbed as if he got nervous about losing control. Later he finds
back to composure and to a writing that reminds of quiet breathing.
Of course the peace of his mind was paid by suffering from symptoms
of somatising emotional problems, but it seems he bore them with
equanimity till the end. I could hardly believe it till I found out
how he could have managed.
I will eat a broomstick if this man hadn't a strong religious faith
that comforted and braced him, whatever Messrs. Dallas, Sellers and
Seigenthaler etc. may say. Of course he wasn't exactly pious and by
no means innocent, also not a confessor or a martyr, just an
insightful sinner who took God serious. His faith saved him from
hubris and all its tragic consequences. He was also protected by
knowledge and understanding, gathered from close observation. Even
his critics admit that he was able to learn from his own and other
Polk's mind was perhaps about as sterile as his body and he had to
adopt ideas for lack of mental fertility. He chose and fostered them
with care and got along with them, while creative minds often have to
struggle with their offspring. Polk did not escape errors,
obsessions, doubts, and prejudices, but he avoided to get tragically
ensnared by illusions. Mr. Lincoln called Mr. Polk bewildered,
confounded and miserably perplexed. It's no proof of Mr. Lincoln's
opinion that Polk certainly sounded embarrassed when he had to
explain his strategic decisions quite like countless parents who
had to explain the conditions of procreation to their children and
made them wonder why Mom and Dad suddenly talk rot
Polk was not spared severe strokes of destiny but he was spared
strokes he could not cope with. No matter to what extent he owed his
coping powers to personal strength or wisdom, God's mercy, dumb luck
or more than a little help from his friends: when he died he took a
peaceful leave from a remarkably "completed" life. Perhaps it was
even a favour of destiny that he died soon enough to leave a wife he
meant to love for all eternity and who remembered him fondly ever
after. Some years later, death might have parted a scowling grouch
who wanted to get outdoors and abroad and an overprotective nag who
wanted to stay at home. So why should his early death be tragic?
It may still be that Polk was a tragic figure without getting aware
of it, viz. a narrow-minded overachiever who just did not recognize
how he had messed up things by unduly forceful action. Viewed from a
standpoint on high moral ground the conduct of Polk's war project may
look like a sort of sacrilege for which his country got punished, or
like a tragic failure by refusing to take up the right task while
choosing a wrong one, thereby devaluating its completion.
Viewed from various places on the low mountain range of utilitarian
ethics it looks much more like one of several possible appropriate
measures. None of the presidential candidates of 1844 could have met
all the requirements of the complicated 1844 situation. Polk chose to
meet requirements that were considered as second-rate in importance
by many critics, but he met a good deal of them, and some in quite a
satisfying way. Together with that he met some important demands of
Jas. K. Polk & Consort. What looked like self-sacrifice to Mr.
Buchanan was investment that paid off, albeit he could not enjoy his
success too long. In his short retirement Mr. Polk's system got so
deranged by a surfeit of joys that it could not fend off a severe
infect. An irony of fate. Tragic?
It proved tragic that Polk was followed by four unfortunate
successors, who met too few requirements of any kind to prevent a
catastrophe. The first and second had not enough time to effect much,
the third was paralyzed by a calamity that seemed like a viciously
timed blow of a malevolent destiny. The fourth was downright
helpless, either by nature or because he was too old. And there was a
fifth successor, the man who had accused Mr. Polk for provoking a war
and who got provoked into fighting a war
Perhaps I fell for illusions about tragedy or illusions about Polk,
but that won't be tragic. I could live with disillusionment. Finding
out how Jimmy K. could have managed amounted to finding out how I
could manage. Thanks, Mr. Polk, no matter if you were in fact a
wretch, a badass or a damned fool.
Thanks, dear readers for your patience.