As Republicans tout Romney's potential Polk-like qualities, we would do well to reevaluate the anecdote at the heart of the myth of the 11th president's success.
Mitt Romney's campaign manager Matt Rhoades sent reporters aGoogling in August when he suggested that his candidate's presidential role-model might be James K. Polk. According to the Huffington Post's Jon Ward, "Rhoades and the rest of the members of Romney's inner circle think a Romney presidency could look much like the White House tenure of the 11th U.S. president."
A Democrat who served as chief-executive from 1845 to 1849, Polk numbers among America's most intriguing, lesser known presidents. To be sure, the Tennessean -- though often a Machiavellian political maestro -- was in life, and remains in historical memory, an austere figure. Although he increased the nation's area by a third, Polk never possessed the leading-man allure of the likes of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, the Roosevelts, Kennedy, and Reagan.
Conventional wisdom associates Polk's presidency with Manifest Destiny. The phrase, coined in 1845 by journalist John O'Sullivan, came to refer to an unbridled, in most cases east-to-west, U.S expansionism ordained by a Protestant, Anglo-Saxon God.
But Polk wasn't particularly religious; and, so far as we know, he never uttered or penned the phrase Manifest Destiny. Not for this practical politician such a gaseous notion. Rather, husbanding political capital, Polk propelled his expansionist projects successively not simultaneously. And each was designed to appeal to specific partisan, sectional and economic constituencies. In the end, Polk's successes, for good or ill, were truly astonishing: waging war against Mexico, he secured U.S. title to Texas (a task initiated by Polk's predecessor John Tyler); and from Mexico -- also resultant of that same war -- Polk obtained for the United States today's American Southwest and California. And negotiating with Great Britain, he obtained the Pacific Northwest of today's continental 48 states.
Polk left office in March 1849 and died three months later. Eleven years later, the United States, its domestic politics sectionalized by Polk's policies, became embroiled in a civil war fought, in part, over the status of slavery -- permitted or banned -- in the lands he had brought under U.S. dominion; and, eventually, over slavery's future throughout the nation. But, in the wake of Polk's territorial attainments -- and ever since -- no American politician, liberal or conservative, with serious hopes of winning an election, has suggested returning California, Texas and the American Southwest to Mexico, or ceding the nation's Pacific Northwest to Britain. As historian George Pierce Garrison observed in 1906, a half century after Polk's presidency, "There are few in this day, even of those who condemn the methods of Polk, that would be willing to see his work undone."
Polk's continental attainments, however, are not what admirers tend to stress to explain their veneration for him. No, what most mention first is his leadership style: They correctly recount that, unique among American presidents, Polk came to the White House pledged to serve one term and one term only, and never waivered from that resolve. They also cite a list of four achievements Polk hoped to -- and did -- accomplish as president.
For politicians and political strategist admirers, that list has served as both a record to be admired and a roadmap to future greatness -- goals set, goals accomplished. Republican Karl Rove, for instance, recently found parallels between Polk's presidency and what Rove views as the likely success of a Romney administration: "He [Romney] will be like [James] Polk," Rove said, adding that Polk "is one of the near greats, and we don't recognize." Even so, Rove added, "We've begun to recognize him [Polk] in recent years. But here's a guy who ran, and he said he was going to do four things."
Polk's list comes from a widely recounted anecdote: around the time of his inauguration, he "raised his hand high in the air." Then, "bringing it down with force on his thigh," he enumerates what he predicts as the "four great measures" of his administration -- a reduction in tariffs (to stimulate free trade), the permanent establishment of an independent treasury system (rather than placing federal deposits in private banks), the acquisition of some or all of the Pacific Northwest (the "Oregon Country," then under "joint occupation" by Britain and the U.S., and which included today's British Columbia), and the acquisition, from Mexico, of California.
The anecdote comes from politician and historian George Bancroft (1800-91), who, interrupting his career as a prosperous author, served President Polk successively as navy secretary and as minister to Britain. The anecdote made an early -- perhaps its earliest -- appearance in a typescript entitled "Biographical sketch of James K. Polk" (c. late 1880s), now among Bancroft's papers at the New York Public Library. In 1889, the story was repeated, with slight variations, in historian James Schouler's History of the United States of America, under the Constitution. Three decades later, Eugene Irving McCormac recounted it in his 1922 James K. Polk: A Political Biography -- the first full-fledged study, drawing on primary sources, of the Polk presidency. In the process, McCormac thus stamped upon Bancroft's foggy recollection what seemed to be an imprimatur of solid provenance for 20th century readers and historians.
McCormac gave Polk as president high marks ("few ... have done more to increase the power and prestige of the nation"); and subsequent, though not all, U.S. historians have rendered similarly favorable assessments -- most of those repeating the thigh-slap anecdote or, minimally, its four-goals premise. In 1948, Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. asked numerous prominent historians to rank all U.S. presidents by their performance as chief executive. When their responses were averaged, Polk finished in 10th place. "Polk set himself certain precise objectives to be achieved while he was President, and achieve them he did," wrote Schlesinger approvingly. When Schlesinger repeated the exercise in 1962, Polk fared even better, finishing eighth. And when his son, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. repeated the exercise in 1996, Polk finished at number nine.