From Ed Williams, retired editor of The Observer’s editorial pages.
Mecklenburg native James K. Polk’s name popped up recently during the kerfuffle about who’ll succeed Speaker of the House John Boehner. A top prospect was Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan, but he’s said to want to be president. Only one Speaker has become president: James Knox Polk.
Born in 1795 in what’s now Pineville, Polk moved as a child to Tennessee. He came back to graduate from UNC, then returned to Nashville.
His name will come up again as Barack Obama’s term ends and experts consider his rank among presidents. Polk usually ranks among the top dozen of the 43 presidents.
Why so high? Though he served only one term (1845-49), Polk delivered on all “four great measures” he advocated during his campaign. Harry Truman called him a great president because he “said what he intended to do and did it.” Polk’s agenda:
Tariffs. The Whigs, strong in the Northeast and border states, favored taxes on imported goods to protect this nation’s fledgling industries. Polk’s Democrats were strongest in the rural South, which had little industry but imported many goods that tariffs made more costly. Polk cut tariffs and encouraged freer trade.
Independent treasury. Polk created the U.S. Treasury to retain federal revenues, removing federal funds from private and state banks.
Oregon. Polk promised to acquire some or all of the Oregon country, where America and Great Britain disagreed about the boundary. His compromise secured territory that’s now Washington, Oregon and Idaho and parts of Montana and Wyoming.
California. Polk promised to acquire California and New Mexico from Mexico. When negotiations stalled, he sent troops to the disputed Rio Grande region. In 1846 war broke out. The 1848 peace agreement reduced Mexico’s size by half and increased our nation’s by a third, adding what are now California, Nevada, Utah, most of Arizona and parts of New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming.
Polk championed Manifest Destiny, the belief that America was destined to span the continent. When his term ended America extended from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
While most Americans may not remember Polk, he’s honored by a pop cultural tribute – the 1996 song “James K. Polk” by the band They Might Be Giants.