Track of the Day: ‘James K. Polk’ by They Might Be Giants

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

This song has been stuck in my head ever since I stumbled on a review of Polk’s diary in our August 1895 issue, in which James Schouler looked back on the legacy of the 11th U.S. president:

Whatever may be thought of Mr. Polk’s official course in despoiling Mexico for the aggrandizement of his own country, one cannot read this Diary carefully without an increased respect for his simple and sturdy traits of character, his inflexible honesty in financial concerns, and the pertinacious zeal and strong sagacity which characterized his whole presidential career. ... Both [George] Bancroft and [James] Buchanan, of his official advisers, have left on record, since his death, incidental tributes to his greatness as an administrator and unifier of executive action; both admitting in effect his superior force of will and comprehension of the best practical methods for attaining his far-reaching ends.

Indeed, Polk—who was born on this day in 1795—“met his every goal,” as TMBG puts it. Schouler also noted that John Quincy Adams had left a similar diary:

No two Presidents could have been more at the antipodes than were Polk and John Quincy Adams in political affiliations and designs. Yet each, after his peculiar fashion, was honest, inflexible in purpose, and pursuant of the country’s good; and both have revealed views singularly alike—the one as a scholar, the other as a sage and sensible observer—of the selfish, ignoble, and antagonistic influences which surge about the citadel of national patronage, and beset each supreme occupant of the White House.

Striking words for partisan times. Read a PDF of Schouler’s complete review here, and read more from my colleague Adam on those antagonistic influences here.

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