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.
"A great president," former president Harry S. Truman, in 1960, remarked of Polk. "Said what he intended to do and did it." Indeed, the alleged four-goals pronouncement -- with or without the thigh slap -- has become so ubiquitous as to find its way into U.S. history textbooks and, in at least one case, into popular song; the indie band They Might Be Giants's 1996 recording of "James K. Polk" offered a spritely mock celebration of Polk's presidency ("In four short years he met his every goal ...").
But this continual recounting of the anecdote and Polk's consequent high ratings come in spite of the belief by many historians that Polk's policies led irrevocably to the Civil War, the bloody conflict that ensued 11 years after he departed Washington.
What is going on here?
Well, as it turns out, Bancroft's presidential thigh-slap anecdote hangs by the thinnest of evidentiary threads. So far as is known, Bancroft did not write of Polk's enumeration-of-goals pronouncement until the late 1880s -- four decades after Polk's presidency.
As the 19th century waned, so too did Polk's reputation. Many historians came to view the Mexican War as having led to the Civil War. Mostly, however, Polk's presidency sank into obscurity. During the 1880s, Bancroft, as the only surviving member of Polk's cabinet, felt a personal sting in those charges and Polk's neglect. He believed that policies enacted by his former boss had benefited the nation and even led to the Union's Civil War triumph in 1865. Accordingly, to bolster Polk's reputation, Bancroft, during the 1880s, resolved to write a long-contemplated biography of the 11th president.
In the end, Bancroft's failing energy and memory prevented the completion of the Polk biography and other projects he began during those years. The historian's resolve to write a Polk apologia produced two lesser works -- the never-published typescript in which Bancroft presented the thigh-slap anecdote and an article published in Appletons' Cyclopædia, which curiously does not present the anecdote.
In the typescript, Bancroft variously dates the conversation as having occurred "after" and "just before the inauguration." Interestingly too, the anecdote omits mention of Texas, which remained a conundrum for, and preoccupation of, the president well into his presidency: In February 1845, on the eve of Polk's inauguration, North Carolina Senator Willie P. Mangum wrote to an associate, "The arrival of the President elect has given a powerful impulse to party action on this subject.- He is for Texas, Texas, Texas; & talks of but little else." Nonetheless, even if one accepts the notion that Bancroft's anecdote represented a good-faith effort to recall, as best he could, a long-ago incident, such apparent lapses hardly inspire confidence in the octogenarian's powers of recollection.
Moreover, in the typescript's recounting of the alleged incident, Bancroft balks at asserting that he himself heard Polk make the pronouncement, saying only that it was made in the presence of "one of those whom he had selected for one of the departments of the government." In a February 1887 letter to historian James Schouler, however, Bancroft presents himself as the Cabinet member to whom Polk had confided. Subsequently, Schouler, in his aforementioned History of the United States, published in 1889, names Bancroft as the anecdote's source.
Beyond questions concerning Bancroft, no recounting of or allusion to the depicted pronouncement -- or any similar summation of policy goals -- appears in a diary Polk kept during his presidency, a candid journal eventually published in 1910. Admittedly, Polk's diary begins in late August 1845, four months after he took office. Even so, in the privacy of his diary, does it not seem reasonable to expect that the president would have noted -- one by one, as they were attained -- the achievement of each of his "four great measures"? But, then again, no references to the list appear in any contemporary letters I've located over the past four years as editor of Polk's correspondence. Nor have I or my colleague Michael D. Cohen found accounts of or allusions to the pronouncement in any other Polk-related writings, published or otherwise, that antedate Bancroft's 1880s claimed recollection.
Nonetheless, since Bancroft first asserted the anecdote, it has entered presidential lore. Repeated ad infinitum in U.S. history textbooks, the story has become U.S. political history's equivalent of Babe Ruth's called home run of the 1932 World Series. Of course, a negative cannot be proven, and more credible evidence supporting the anecdote may yet be located. But, unless and until that occurs, given the formidable powers of presidential prescience depicted, it begs credulity to believe that other contemporaries -- Polk himself, and his friends, family, and associates -- would not have recounted the prediction, early on, widely and frequently.
Bancroft's list, while ostensibly clarifying Polk's legacy, has, in fact, obscured it. Preoccupied with the anecdote's named goals, many historians have ignored other aspects of Polk's presidency, both successes and disappointments. The latter included failures to win California's statehood or annex Cuba; and, transcendentally, the aforementioned national disharmonies exacerbated by his policies. Moreover, fixation on the list has led many historians to eschew other yardsticks -- moral, long-range, or both -- that might have yielded fuller, more thoughtful, assessments of Polk's presidency.
Bancroft's anecdote and its insinuation into accepted history call to mind a scene from director John Ford's 1962 film The Man who Shot Liberty Valance. A veteran small-town newspaper editor is preparing a story on the killing of a bullying outlaw who has long tormented the frontier community. Around town, credit -- and attendant glory -- for the killing has gone to the wrong man. The editor knows the true hero's identity, and is asked if the story he is about to publish will correct the error. "No, sir," he answers. "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
This article is adapted from the introduction to the forthcoming Volume 12 (Jan.-July 1847) of the Correspondence of James K. Polk" and the book 'Met His Every Goal': James K. Polk and the Legends of Manifest Destiny