When thinking of the greatest presidents in American history, a handful of names come to mind. This list inevitably includes Washington, Lincoln, the Roosevelts, and perhaps Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
Allow me to present another name as one of the greats. This man was a one-termer, but perhaps had the most effective record of any president, two terms or one (or four), in American history. He grew the nation by a third, settled international border disputes and changed the economic face of the nation for years to come. I am of course talking about James K. Polk (1845–1849).
In a very close election, Polk, the dark horse democratic nominee, edged out his Whig (the forerunners of the republicans) opponent, Henry Clay, with a 39,490 vote margin.
During the campaign, Polk had campaigned on a single term, and in that single term proposed to accomplish four tasks. He declared that he would reestablish the Independent Treasury System, reduce tariffs, acquire all, or some, of the Oregon Territory and negotiate a land trade with Mexico.
First, Polk was able to reestablish the Independent Treasury System, which remained in existence until 1921. In a huge step to encourage international trade, Polk had the Walker Tariff pushed through Congress. The increased revenue and trade which stemmed from the Tariff also brought good relations with nations all over the world yearning to tap into American markets.
Such good relations, most notably with Great Britain, were critical when Polk was able to settle the dispute over the Oregon Territory at the 49th Parallel peacefully. Idaho, Oregon, and Washington were all added to the Union as free territories, and the United States and Great Britain refrained from going to war for a third time in 70 years.
Following the annexation of the Republic of Texas in 1845, relations between Mexico (who had lost the territory in 1836) and the United States were considerably soured and war was declared on May 11th, 1846.
What followed was a short conflict, during which the Army scored victory after victory over the ill-prepared, ill-trained and ill-equipped Mexicans.
A peace treaty was signed in 1848, with the land encompassing California, Nevada, Utah, most of Arizona, and parts of New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming becoming territories of the United States.
True to his pledge, Polk declined to run for a second term, leaving office on March 4th, 1848, returning to his native Tennessee and promptly dropping dead three months later. In those four years, Polk expanded the United States by a third, changed economic policy for generations, and fostered trade and good will with nations across the world.
Harry S. Truman summed up his predecessor quite accurately: “He said what he was going to do, and did it.” Of course the man has a chorus of detractors, inevitable given the breadth of his accomplishments. A man who owned other human beings is entitled to criticisms.
At the end of the day, however, what cannot be denied is the fact James K. Polk completed his agenda and changed this country forever. Thank goodness I can learn more about Polk and others at Mason.