Jeb Bush’s recent profession of admiration for President James K. Polk has prompted a Politico piece pondering the historical impact of one of three Tennesseans to serve as the nation’s chief executive. It starts like this:
“One of the presidents that I really admire, and he’s not—I think people rank him pretty good, the historians who look at this—is James K. Polk,” noted Jeb Bush at a town hall event in Sioux City, Iowa, two weeks ago. “Ever read about him?”
Presumably, if Bush has read his history, he knows that James Polk may have wielded the powers of high office with uncommon focus and force, but his actions often wrought dark consequences. And for that, he continues to confound historians, who aren’t quite sure whether the 11th president belongs in a category with failed antebellum chief executives like Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan, who aided and abetted the extension of slavery; with the likes of a long string of presidents in the late 19th century, who left little mark; or with Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln, who greatly expanded the powers of the presidency in the pursuit of sharp ideological agendas.
“Polk did something pretty extraordinary,” Bush explained. “He said, I’m going to run, I’m going to deal with a tariff, that he turned it into an economic tariff … it was a big issue at the time, I don’t remember which way, it was reversing a non-economic tariff, or a tariff; … [he also said] I’m going to bring Texas into the Union, which turned out to be a brilliant idea; and I’m going to solve the problem in the Pacific Northwest between Britain and the United States. And he did it, and then he said, I’m only going to serve one term. … And, amazingly, he did those things, he served his one term, and he left.”
Set aside for the moment Bush’s confusion over tariffs (they are all “economic,” and in ramming the Walker Tariff of 1846 through Congress, Polk sharply reduced tax rates on imported goods). In claiming kinship with this controversial president, what precisely does Bush mean to intimate? That he is a proponent of free trade? That he intends to reduce tax rates? That he intends to wield American military power more forcefully? That he intends to invade Mexico? (He wouldn’t be the only 2016 GOP presidential contender to issue that threat.) Or that he aims to set goals and achieve them—only to have them unravel less than two decades later?
A former Tennessee governor and speaker of the United States House of Representatives, James K. Polk emerged as the Democratic Party’s unlikely, compromise candidate in 1844. His victory over Henry Clay that fall placed a hardline Jacksonian Democrat back in the White House and set the stage for one of the most tumultuous period in American history.