Most people today have never never heard of America’s Most Effective President; James K. Polk (D-Tennessee).
In fact, a Google search for Polk in May 2019 came up with Polk Audio rather than the 11th President of the United States. Yet Polk probably did more to make America than any President, except for George Washington.
For example, if it were not for Polk; California, Texas, Arizona, Oregon, Washington, Utah, Hawaii, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and possibly Alaska, might not be in the Union. Thus, America, would have been smaller and poorer without Polk.
In addition, America might not be a superpower; and the world would have been a very different place, without Polk. Yet, Polk’s body has no permanent grave 170 years after his death The New York Times reports.
Why Polk was America’s Most Effective Chief Executive
I consider Polk America’s effective chief executive because he achieved all of his major goals in the White House. Conversely, most Presidents do not achieve most of their goals.
Essentially, Polk had five goals when he ran for President in 1844. Those goals were:
- Expand the United States to the Pacific Coast.
- Bring the Republic of Texas into the Union.
- Annex as much Mexican territory as possible.
- Secure the Pacific Northwest (modern Oregon and Washington State) for America.
- Avoid War with the British Empire.
Impressively, Polk achieved each of those goals. The USA expanded to the Pacific, Texas became a state. America annexed large amounts of Mexican territory and the Pacific Northwest became American. Finally, America established a permanent peace with the British Empire.
Why Polk was America’s most successful President
Polk succeed because he focused on the big goals and ignored politics.
For instance, Polk refused to run for a second term. That left the President free to concentrate on his agenda of territorial expansion at all costs.
Second, Polk focused on his goals and ignored everything else. Specifically, Polk ignored the most divisive and destructive issue of the era, slavery, and concentrated on his agenda of territorial acquisition at all costs.
Third, Polk could accept the political consequences of his actions. Dramatically, Polk launched a questionable war with Mexico that many Americans regarded as illegal and immoral.
Even some of America’s professional soldiers; including future President Ulysses S. Grant (R-Illinois), felt Polk’s Mexican War was wrong. However, as president, Grant returned none of the territory Polk conquered.
How Polk Succeeded
Fourth, Polk concentrated on what was doable and avoided the popular but impossible. In particular, Polk negotiated with the British Empire; the world’s most potent military power, but went to war with Mexico, a weak third-rate power.
Importantly, Polk ignored hawks who were demanding war with Britain over the Oregon Territory (the Pacific Northwest). Unlike the hawks, Polk understood Britain’s Royal Navy could sink America’s fleet and shell American cities like New York into rubble.
Moreover, Polk had no desire to emulate President James Madison (JR-Virginia). Madison was the president who fled Washington to avoid capture by British Redcoats during the War of 1812. The highlights of Madison’s administration include the looting and burning of the White House by British Regulars.
Why Polk Succeeded
Thus, Polk succeeded because he had a realistic opinion of American military power and its limits. Unlike presidents Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Texas); Madison, and George W. Bush (R-Texas) Polk knew America is not invincible and can lose wars.
Importantly, Polk took what he could get and tried not to do the impossible. Instead, of trying to resolve the question of slavery, which took the Civil War to resolve. Polk concentrated his efforts on what he could achieve.
Finally, Polk sacrificed popularity for success. Notably, Polk refused to seek reelection; which upset party loyalists and refused to take popular stands that were unworkable. For instance, Polk refused to force Texas to enter the Union as a free state; something that would have been popular in the North.
What Polk’s Success can Teach us Today
There is much that Polk’s success can teach Americans today. In particular, Polk offers four lessons I think American voters today should consider when selecting a president.
First, unlikely candidates are often the most successful. James K. Polk was a “Dark Horse” candidate nobody saw coming. Almost nobody thought Polk had a chance of victory after his surprise capture of the Democratic nomination in 1844, yet he won.
Second, experience matters. Before the White House, Polk served as a Congressman; Speaker of the US House of Representatives, and Governor of Tennessee.
Polk’s understanding of the political process enabled him to succeed where his hero; the far more popular; but controversial, President Andrew Jackson (D-Tennessee) failed. To explain, Jackson could not implement his agenda of territorial expansion, but Polk succeeded.
Third, popularity and popular opinion are often wrong. Most observers thought Polk would fail in 1844 but he won. Therefore, trusting your gut; or your instincts, is sometimes better than listening to the “experts” in politics.
Fourth, effective leaders often have terrible ethics. Disgustingly, Polk saw nothing wrong with slavery and supremacy. Additionally, Polk felt justified to invade another country illegally and steal its territory. Also, Polk ordered Americans to die in a dishonorable and unethical war.
America’s most Disruptive President; Polk in Perspective
In the final analysis, Polk was also America’s most disruptive president. Specifically, Polk’s conquests made the Civil War and the end of slavery inevitable.
To elaborate, Polk; and his fellow Democrats, sold the Mexican War to Southerners with the promise several slave states would enter the union. With the exception of Texas; however, all the new territory became free states.
Northerners; who outnumbered Southerners and had greater resources, quickly overran all the Mexican territories, Polk conquered. In addition, Northerners rapidly colonized the Pacific Northwest.
By 1850, Southerners realized they had nothing but Texas for the lives they sacrificed and the blood had they shed in Polk’s Mexican War. Moreover, the Gold Rush; and Polk’s successor Zachary Taylor (W-Louisiana), brought California into the Union as a free state.
How Polk destroyed slavery and Saved the Union
Ironically, Polk; a slave owner, helped secure Union victory in the Civil War by annexing California and Nevada.
California’s gold; and Nevada’s silver, gave the Union the financial resources it needed to wage a sustained war against the Confederacy. Interestingly, one of the main reasons for Confederate defeat was hyperinflation stemming from the South’s lack of economic resources.
Additionally, the creation of the state of Nevada gave President Abraham Lincoln (R-Illinois) the Senate majority; and Electoral College votes, he needed to stay in office and sustain the Union war effort. Therefore, Polk’s disruptive administration led to slavery’s destruction and the Union’s survival in the Civil War.
Can America elect an Effective President Again?
Could modern America elect another President as effective and as disruptive as James K. Polk?
I do not know, but history teaches us two things about Polk we must remember. First, nobody saw him coming and; second, few people expected anything of Polk.
Thus, effective Presidents are unexpected and unappreciated. Consequently, it is almost impossible for voters to tell which presidential candidates will be effective.