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Where did they come from, the conflicted character traits that combined to make James K. Polk less than a natural leader, yet justifiably judged among presidents of great achievement?
Edward Cook, whose Life of Florence Nightingale helped illuminate for the world the heroine of the Crimean War, warned biographers about the "natural temptation" to draw too heavily on youthful experiences in explaining the adult. So often, he admonished, writers "magnify some childish incident as prophetic of what is to come thereafter." The child, after all, is not in all things father to the man.
True enough. Nonetheless, Polk's early life offers fascinating clues that perhaps help explain the development of a president with the missionary zeal of a fundamentalist preacher determined to convert the populace to Jackson's Democracy. Polk's oratory fell somewhat short of evangelistic eloquence, but his religion was partisan politics.
Polk's boyhood was marked by several distinctive influences. There was an upsetting religious conflict between his parents. There was the upheaval of the family's move from an established community to an unknown frontier destination. There was a continuing, debilitating pattern of poor health. There was a privileged and focusededucation. But perhaps most influential was his intense political indoctrination at the family hearth. "He grew up imbued with the principles of ... Jefferson," wrote George Bancroft, the historian who served in his cabinet.
His maturation as a Jeffersonian Republican and then as a Jacksonian Democrat is the aspect of his life easiest to track. Eugene McCormac, his biographer, simply concluded that Polk's faith in Republican doctrine was "inherited." It is quite clear that from early childhood both his grandfather and his father engraved on the boy's mind a political creed that never faded. For Ezekiel and Sam Polk, Republican philosophy was their gospel; Jefferson was their Jesus. Born on Little Sugar Creek near Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1795 - just four years after the nation had ratified the Bill of Rights - Polk was three years old when President John Adams signed the Sedition Act, which sought to kill public censure of his Federalist policies. Jim Polk was six by the time Jefferson, having defeated Adams in 1800, pardoned those Republican critics who had been convicted of castigating Federalists under the act.
While the boy was much too young to understand everything he heard around the family table in Mecklenburg County, the demonizing of John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and Federalist principles seemed to comport with what he knew of the world. Jefferson was the first president he remembered, his first political hero, the leader his elders believed in and admired. In simplest terms, there was an ongoing contest between Jefferson's adherents and his enemies, the power elite.
As Polk grew into adulthood, everything he had grasped about the conflict between Federalist and Republican values seemed to reinforce a basic and logical argument that the country would be better served if national government was the declared servant of all the people (or all those who were not slaves) and was barred from acting chiefly as the agent of rich and powerful constituencies. Jackson was the heir to the Jeffersonian philosophy, as Henry Clay was to the creed of Hamilton. Polk knew where he was in that fight, and it became his own.
God and Family
But if there was agreement in the household as it related to politics, there was discord when it came to Polk's early religious life. As a newborn babe, he was thrust into the eye of a spiritual storm. In his Mecklenburg community, where Presbyterianism was as common as patriotism, he was a marked child: unbaptized.
Following their marriage, his parents, Samuel and Jane Knox Polk, attended the Presbyterian congregation at Providence, a farming community a few miles from where they lived along Sugar Creek. Polk's mother was a great-grandniece of John Knox, the religionist who brought the Reformation to Scotland, and was delighted when Sam agreed that their son, born just ten months and seven days after their Christmas Day marriage in 1794, would be given her family name and baptized in her family's tradition.
The moment came when the Reverend James Wallis, a stern and dogmatic pastor, expected the child's parents to affirm their Christian faith. Sam balked. He would make no such avowal. Whereupon Pastor Wallis also balked; no parental commitment to the Christian faith, no baptism, he decreed. It was not until fifty-three years later, on his deathbed, that James K. Polk was christened by a Methodist minister.
The controversy in which the pastor visited the sin of the father on the son had its roots in a two-year-old argument between Reverend Wallis and Sam's opinionated, confrontational, deist father. Ezekiel fell out with the minister in April 1793 after his second wife bore him a stillborn son, who, according to the pastor's doctrinal belief, would be denied admittance to heaven. Grandfather Polk declared unholy war against Reverend Wallis, seeking, without great success, to convert the preacher's church members to deism. Into that abrasive religious environment, Polk was born.
Jim's childhood and formal education were interlaced with religious orientation and tension. Certainly his mother's piety was a positive force. His father's absorbing values were materialistic with a near-religious dedication to commerce, farming, and building wealth.
Soon after his marriage Polk dutifully paid for a pew in the Presbyterian Church, and throughout his life he often found time to attend Sunday services with his wife, Sarah. As a young, ambitious politician, he became a Mason and signed on with the state militia, but never joined a religious congregation.
During Polk's years of public service, as throughout most of the nation's life, religion mattered in society. Alexis de Tocqueville, who arrived from France in 1831 (when Congressman Polk was thirty-six), wrote, "The religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention." He was "astonished" by the "peaceful dominion" of religious tolerance throughout the United States. He was told by clergymen and laity alike that it was due "mainly to the separation of church and state." Tocqueville never met Pastor Wallis but did discover "men full of a fanatical and almost wild spiritualism" across the country. He concluded that "religious insanity is very common in the United States." Separation of church and state, in those days, as now, did not keep preachers out of politics. (Jefferson was attacked during the 1800 presidential campaign by a Connecticut minister for being a "howling atheist.") Nor did the "wall of separation" deter politicians from openly seeking denominational support. (In his first race for Congress Madison pledged to support a Bill of Rights in order to win Baptist backing.)
In his presidential diary, Polk occasionally mentions the quality of a sermon he heard at church with Sarah, but more as if he were a theater critic than a worshipper. The churchgoing was at Sarah's initiative. Most often he notes in his diary that he "accompanied his wife" to church. She had no hesitation in interrupting a Sunday-morning presidential conference by walking into his office and inviting (it may have been a demand) the assembled conferees to attend with her.
Rarely in his life did he 'speak on his religious commitment. When expressing a slight partiality for the Methodist Church, he comes across more as if he were considering which fork in a road to take for a comfortable horseback ride, rather than selecting a path to salvation.
As president, he rarely referred to God in his diary or suggested that he prayed for guidance or heavenly intervention in his life - not even during the war with Mexico. On one occasion, after an angry argument with a preacher, he did "thank God" for the constitutional wall between government and religion. Once, when frustrated by individuals seeking official appointments, he promised that if "a kind Providence [permitted him] length of days and health," he would write "the secret and hitherto unknown history" of the evil workings of government. Again, the deity turned up in the diary when he discussed with his cabinet how to handle the growing difficulties with Great Britain and Mexico. The country should stand firm against both countries, said Polk, "and leave the rest to God and the country." But religion was second to politics in Polk's life.
Excerpted from James K. Polk by John Seigenthaler Copyright © 2003 by John Seigenthaler . Excerpted by permission.
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Posted April 2, 2004
From the NashvilleCityPaperBookClub Saralee says What makes a truly great president of the United States? Is it character, an agenda, the ability to lead, or governing during a war? If you believe it is a combination of all of these things, James K. Polk should be listed among our greatest of presidents. Times Books has begun publishing a series that will include a book about each of the U.S. presidents. The books are written for the busy person and are usually under 200 pages. Nashvillian John Seigenthaler, who served as the publisher and CEO of the Tennessean and founded the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, was asked to recount the life of our 11th president in James K. Polk: 1845-1849. The author is at his best when describing the political climate of Tennessee during the time of Polk's climb to power. Former President Andrew Jackson was a mentor to Polk in both positive and negative ways. Just like today, there were many in Tennessee who shaped national policy and like today, they were of different political parties and had different goals. How do you think Polk handled the different factions? Both Polk and Jackson were big believers in 'manifest destiny' or in the right of the United States to expand its territory. Polk was in favor of making Texas a state and had a vision to expand the United States to the Pacific Ocean by acquiring the land that later became the states of Oregon, Washington and California. Do you think the Polk administration went about the acquisition in the right way? What about the continuation of slavery? Polk was on record about how horrible slavery was but he continued to own slaves, as did his widow. Could he have made a difference and tried to end slavery sooner? Polk also entered office saying he would only serve one term. Do you think he was able to accomplish most of his agenda because he only served one term? Why isn't Polk as popular with Tennessee historians as Jackson? Larry's language Do events about the presidential election of 1844 sound very familiar today? There were arguments about tariffs in international trade, the state of the Treasury and the issue of war predominated. A Tennessean was elected president, but the margin of victory in Tennessee was only 113 votes and he failed to carry his home state. Nashvillian John Seigenthaler is uniquely qualified to evaluate how those issues affected America in his book James K. Polk: 1845-1849. Seigenthaler has lived, witnessed, participated in, and enjoyed presidential politics for more than 50 years having been friend, mentor and advisor to several of our modern presidents and national leaders. From his vantage point as one of the nation's leading journalists and editors, Seigenthaler has gained great knowledge and insight about the public policies and politics that make America great. At the time of his election, President James K. Polk was the youngest man ever elected to our highest office. Clearly he got to the White House because of the mentoring, friendship and guidance of President Andrew Jackson, although Polk's determination and steadiness were also major assets. Polk also benefited from his rivals, Henry Clay and Martin Van Buren, taking the wrong side of the argument about whether the United States should annex the Republic of Texas. When Polk won the election, he led the movement of 'manifest destiny' to gain Texas, the southwest and California, and Polk negotiated successfully with Great Britain to resolve our claims to the Oregon territory. Polk lived a difficult but successful life. Born to a slave owning family, he underwent kidney stone surgery without anesthesia on an emergency basis as a teenager. He was very successful in school, work, and politics as he was elected to Congress, became speaker of the House of Representatives, and governor of Tennessee before twice losing in an attempt to be reelected governor. Polk was a surprise nominee for the Democrats when he won
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Posted April 7, 2008
All in All a very bad book. It was a complete waste of time and I will read a picture book before picking up that thing again. If you can: stay away from the book
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Posted September 10, 2004
Although little remembered today, James K. Polk was once known as one of America's strongest and most succesful Presidents and he should still rank as such. He waged the Mexican War, expanded the nation's boundaries, and as his diaries, show, was an intensive and accomplished administrator. Unlike many modern politicians, he set strong daring goals and actually met them. Polk only served one term more than 150 years ago and died shortly after leaving office or he would be better known today. But students of the presidency and modern political leaders would do well to emulate Mr. Polk's example.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 25, 2008
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