James Polk has no large monuments dedicated to him, no presidential library burnishing his reputation, but he is an American president whom history buffs can't help bumping into. In high school I learned of Polk's role in acquiring Oregon and the Mexican Cession for the United States, though not about the sense of betrayal this evoked in Northern politicians, who resented Polk's reneging on his promise to acquire British Columbia as well. In college I came across George Alec Effinger's sci-fi story “The Aliens Who Knew, I Mean, Everything,” in which omniscient aliens revealed that Polk, who had fulfilled all his campaign promises in one term, was the greatest American president. Who was I, mere Earthling, to argue? Effinger's story probably inspired They Might Be Giants' now-classic song “James K. Polk,” which I discovered in grad school and inflicted on my survey classes for several years.* On Facebook, I briefly indulged in the online version of Oregon Trail, in which Polk appeared as a minor tavern-lounger. And a few years ago, when I attended a stimulating NEH seminar at the University of North Carolina, a handsome statue reminded me that UNC had been the eleventh president's alma mater. Polk has been, as I say, a hard man to escape.
I hold no brief for Polk's personal or political virtue. The thin-skinned Tennessean was not merely a slave-owner but a slave-dealer, and his acquisition of New Mexico and California little more than piracy, abetted by Mexico's political instability and its embroilment, as Brian Delay has ably shown, in a two-front war against the United States and the Comanches. I've not yet read through Tom Chaffin's new book Met His Every Goal?, but what I've seen of it suggests that Polk never even made the campaign promises that he fulfilled during his presidency, and he under-fulfilled two of those ostensible promises: acquiring Texas (actually accomplished by his predecessor, John Tyler) and acquiring all of the Oregon Country (he actually agreed to divide the territory with Britain). I will give Polk credit for one thing, though: his ability to endure intense pain. In his youth James suffered through surgery to remove bladder stones, an operation that probably left him sterile (he and his wife Sarah Childress had no children) and which, I suspect, left him with periodic discomfort thereafter. Polk's supporters called the Tennessean “Young Hickory,” in reference to his patron Andrew Jackson. Insofar as hickory trees were tough and given that Jackson also endured considerable pain (due to dental problems and several old dueling wounds), the nicknames were aptly-chosen. Lucky we are to live in a century with decent health care.
* In 2013 I had the pleasure of hearing TMBG perform this song live in Saint Louis. Achievement Unlocked.