All About History
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Rather than a ‘dark horse’ candidate, biographer Walter Borneman argues that Polk was actually a tenacious workhorse
What was Polk like as a man?
Polk was scholarly, reserved, and bookish — what some might today characterise as a ‘nerd’. Growing up on what was still the rough and tumble American frontier, he spent time lifting law books, not splitting rails. Within his personality, however, there burned considerable political ambition from a very early age.
As a career politician, was it really unexpected that he would run for president?
The idea of Polk as a ‘dark horse’ is a political myth. Polk was one of the most seasoned and accomplished politicians of his day, someone who had designs to follow Jackson to the White House from the very beginning of his political career. In the Tennessee legislature, seven terms in Congress, including two as Speaker of the House, and as governor of Tennessee, Polk always had his eyes on the bigger prize. He was a viable candidate for vice president in 1840 and was positioning himself for the same in 1844. The letters that go back and forth between Polk and his campaign managers show how much he manoeuvred and sought the nomination.
Was he really a workaholic?
Polk was a hard worker and his work ethic has not been exaggerated. As a three-time candidate for Tennessee governor, he drove himself relentlessly on the campaign trail, riding horseback back and forth across the state. He might well have employed surrogates. As president, Polk was very much a handson manager with regular cabinet meetings, a constant stream of visitors, and numerous meetings with political friends and foes alike.
Was Polk blind to the rising tensions over slavery?
Polk was definitely not blind to the rising tensions between the North and South over slavery — he was himself a slave owner — but he generally chose to ignore or at least downplay these ties. For example, he was very careful as president to keep his ownership of slaves and a Mississippi plantation quiet. Many historians have claimed that Polk’s expansionist policies were tied to his promotion of the expansion of slavery but I don’t believe this is true. Polk was motivated largely by the example of Jacksonian America and manifest destiny to expand across the continent. He pushed this agenda for reasons of trade with the Pacific and to counter British and Spanish interests in North America far more than any idea of expanding slavery.
Why is Polk not better remembered?
The major reason is that Polk was a slave-owning Southerner whose legacy got pushed aside in the wake of the Civil War. I have always thought it interesting to speculate which side Polk would have come down on had he lived to see the war. Many assume that he naturally would have supported the Southern cause as a result of his inherited plantation but his strong Unionist tendencies — clearly in the mould of Andrew Jackson — may well have kept him on the side of the North. Perhaps he might even have kept Tennessee in the Union.