It’s an interesting question. When I was a student in junior high, I had no idea who James K. Polk was. As a matter of fact, I didn’t truly realize the importance of Polk until I was a teacher. First of all, Polk was a “dark horse” candidate. This guy came out of nowhere, and few expected him to win the presidential election of 1844. However, “Young Hickory” (an allusion to fellow Democrat Andrew Jackson) won the election, and his promise to only run for one term and his pledge to expand America’s westward boundary would both be tested during his presidency.
Say all you want about Polk, at least he was a man of his word. Polk only ran for one term, and while he was president the map of the United States changed quite a bit. Committed to the idea of “Manifest Destiny,” Polk expanded the western boundary of United States all the way to the Pacific Ocean. As president Polk worked to acquire the Oregon Country for the United States – perhaps feigning the possibility of another war with Great Britain. The U.S.-Canada border was set at the 49th parallel – from the Rockies to the Pacific. This is the border that remains to this day.
Perhaps Polk is best known for leading the nation during the Mexican-American War. After a failed attempt to purchase land (mainly California) from Mexico, Polk sent General Zachary Taylor (future Whig president) into disputed territory just north of the Rio Grande. Believing that the troop advancement was a provocation of war, Mexican forces attacked the U.S. troops stationed in the disputed territory. Subsequently, in a war message to Congress, Polk said of the affair, “Mexico has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory and shed American blood upon the American soil.” Side note: A freshman Whig Congressman from Illinois (and future president) named Abraham Lincoln questioned whether the “spot” of the attack was actually on American soil in his now famous “Spot Resolutions.”
“…shed American blood upon the American soil.”
After fighting for almost two years (April 1846 to February 1848), the United States defeated Mexico. The U.S. got California (and present-day New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, with parts of Colorado, Utah, and Texas). So, does winning a war make a person a good president?
Polk was chief executive of a nation that accomplished more than a victory over Mexico. As president, Polk worked to significantly increase the size of the United States. He did indeed see America fulfill her “Manifest Destiny.” When Polk entered office, the western border of the U.S. was the Rockies, but when he left office America’s borders reached from sea to shining sea.
Polk’s huge land grabs had their costs, including the unclear future of Native American populations of the West and the expansion of slavery from the South. The nation would face some difficult times sorting out what to do with all of this vast new territory. Eventually, we’d fight a civil war about it. Nevertheless, I believe that James K. Polk was an influential president, and his accomplishments – no matter how unbecoming from our present perspective – at least carry weight due to the sheer fact that he kept his campaign promises. In this regard, when a student asks, “Was James K. Polk a good president?,” I can start an answer by saying that he was a man of his times, but also a man of his word. He only ran for one term, and he extended the U.S. from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. Sure beats answering, “I don’t know, but he did have an interesting haircut.”