Historiographic Essay on Polk

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“President Polk as a Southern Sectionalist” in A Companion to the Antebellum Presidents, 1837-1861. Edited by Joel Silbey (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, Forthcoming 2012)

James Knox Polk was a slave-owning Tennessee Democrat who devoted his private life to profit from plantation slavery and his public career to his party and his section. He was, in short, a fierce Southern partisan. Yet this reality has been masked by generations of shallow scholarship or outright Southern apologetics. Biographies of the eleventh president have gloried in his aggressive territorial expansionism with little thought to motive or context; they have celebrated his strong leadership as chief executive without understanding his principles, goals, or personal ideology; they have taken his words as a Democratic partisan and successful planter-politician at face-value, failing to sufficiently explore party agenda and mechanics. Moreover, studies of the Mexican War or the broader antebellum era do not adequately uncover the partisan Polk, though several do a fine job of placing him the context of party and section. In dispute are not the events of Polk’s career and administration, but his motives and principles. Born in North Carolina in November 1795, Polk made his life in the wilds of Tennessee as a capable lawyer and ambitious politician. Under the guidance of the influential planter-politician Andrew Jackson, Polk rose quickly in Democratic ranks and Southern social circles. In the 1820s and 1830s, as Jackson and Martin Van Buren forged a modern partisan organization out of Jefferson’s loose Democratic coalition, Polk served in the United States House of Representatives, seeing to the Democratic agenda with impressive diligence. In December 1835, the Tennessee Democrat was elected Speaker of the House, a position he enjoyed for four years. As the most powerful man in the lower chamber, Polk oversaw and aided the passage of the infamous “gag rule” that prohibited all anti-slavery memorials and violated citizens’ right to petition their government. In 1839, Polk obtained the Tennessee gubernatorial chair, but failed to win re-election in 1841 due to the popularity of his Whig opponent. With the Tennessee Democracy on the ropes, Polk’s political future looked bleak, though his personal fortunes as slavemaster and plantation owner never seemed brighter. He was a vigorous supporter of territorial expansion and Southern power, and when the 1844 Democratic national nominating convention (controlled by the slave states) rejected the anti-expansionist New Yorker Van Buren, they turned to reliable “Young Hickory.” In the presidential election that year, Polk defeated Whig hero Henry Clay by the slimmest of margins, based in no small part on the electoral advantage given to the slave states by the Three-Fifths Clause of the United States Constitution (where Southern states are rewarded for slavery with inflated representation in the House of Representatives, and thus inflated representation in the Electoral College). As Chief Executive, the Tennessee Democrat fulfilled partisan expectations by launching an ambitious and aggressive pro-Southern program of slavery expansion and federal retrenchment. He orchestrated the lowering of the tariff (pleasing Southern states dependent on imports), finalized the annexation of Texas, negotiated an agreement with Britain over the disputed Oregon Territory, attempted to acquire Cuba as the next slave state, invaded Mexico, and worked tirelessly to kill anti-slavery legislation in Congress. Moreover, President Polk carefully crafted his public image. Young Hickory claimed he was a “nationalist” rather than a sectionalist, and that the acquisition of more slave territory was both an issue of national security and part of America’s “manifest destiny.” He lied about buying and selling human beings, and kept his plantation dealings hidden from public view. He also repeatedly denied that his foreign and...
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