A Most Underrated President…
Contributed by Jeff Olson
When we think of America’s greatest presidents, typically Washington and Lincoln are the first to come to mind; with Franklin Roosevelt and perhaps a few others also making the list. Though not on the “greatest” list, some of our other presidents have not received enough recognition for their accomplishments and contributions to the America they served and left a legacy to. One such president was James K. Polk.
James Knox Polk was born 224 years ago this week, November 2, 1795, on a farm near Pineville, North Carolina. He was the oldest of ten children and, though a small and sickly boy, he grew up helping his father survey and manage their large farms. He attended the University of North Carolina where he graduated in 1818 at the top of his class. He practiced law for several years and was admitted to the bar in 1820. In 1824, Polk married Sarah Childress who strongly encouraged his political career. In 1825, he was elected to seven consecutive terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. Polk was a close friend and follower of Andrew Jackson and in 1835 became Speaker of the House during Jackson’s presidency. With Jackson’s encouragement, Polk made a successful bid for Governor of Tennessee in 1839, but lost re-election efforts in 1841 and 1843.
Although a virtual unknown at the national level, circumstances and issues surrounding the annexation of Texas thrust James Polk into the presidential race of 1844 and helped put him in the White House. Polk’s presidency was one of great accomplishment. During his four years, America achieved its greatest territorial growth, extending the frontiers of American liberty and freedom. The American flag was raised over most of the area now forming nine western states, including Texas which became a state in 1845. James K. Polk carried out every item of his political program. Only one other president, George Washington, had such a clear record of success. When Polk accepted the nomination for President, he declared that he would “enter upon the discharge of the high and solemn duties of the office with the settled purpose of not being a candidate for re-election.” He honored his pledge and was the first President not to seek a second term. After his successor was inaugurated, the 53 year old Polk returned to Nashville and retired. “My… great labor has exceedingly exhausted me” he wrote in his diary. He soon became ill with Cholera, dying on June 15, 1849. George Bancroft, the great historian and Polk’s Secretary of the Navy, said of him; [he was] “prudent, farsighted….one of the very foremost of our public men, and one of the very best and most honest and most successful Presidents the country ever had.”
Shortly after James Polk’s election to the presidency in 1844, on November 30th, Polk County, Arkansas was established. For those of us who call this beautiful place in the Ouachitas “home,” we can and should be very proud of the fact that it is named for man who many historians consider to be the most underrated president in American history.