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Old Hickory’s Boy
JAMES K. POLK always had what any politician craves—the unqualified support of his era’s greatest hero. To be sure, some folks vilified the very name of Andrew Jackson. But they were usually in the minority, and from his fabled victory at New Orleans in 1815 until his death in 1845, Jackson cast a huge shadow across the American political landscape. Throughout most of that time, there was never much doubt that James K. Polk was Old Hickory’s boy. It was no small coincidence that the men were born within twenty miles of each other in the frontier hills of the Carolinas.
Jackson was the elder by twenty-eight years. Because Jackson’s recently widowed mother was traveling to join family, there is some doubt which sister’s home, and hence which side of the North Carolina–South Carolina border, Elizabeth Jackson was at when her third son was born on March 15, 1767. But young Andrew grew up at his aunt Jane’s on the South Carolina side and stayed there until he rode north to Salisbury, North Carolina, to study law seventeen years later.
The law and a lust for adventure soon led Jackson west across the Great Smoky Mountains to Tennessee. In Jonesborough at the age of twenty-one, he fought his first duel, after taking the sarcasm of opposing counsel during a trial a little too personally. Both parties fired into the air, and Jackson left the field satisfied that his reputation was secure. Later in that same year of 1788, he arrived in Nashville.
On the great Cumberland River, Nashville was still very much a fledgling frontier settlement, a town of a few hundred people that nonetheless had already managed to erect both a courthouse and a distillery. Jackson’s boisterous personality attracted plenty of attention. In 1796, after helping to draft a state constitution, Andrew Jackson was elected Tennessee’s first delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives. He was all of twenty-nine years old.1
By then, back in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, Samuel and Jane Polk had welcomed their firstborn. Jackson’s Scots-Irish ancestors had barely reached America when Jackson was born, but the Polks were old-timers, Scots-Irish themselves. Sam’s greatgreat- grandfather had arrived along the eastern shores of Chesapeake Bay in the late 1600s. The Polk clan soon migrated to south-central Pennsylvania and then to the Carolina hill country. Jane was a Knox, descended from a brother of Scottish Reformation leader John Knox. She was a no-nonsense Presbyterian, and she named the baby she delivered about noon on November 2, 1795, James Knox Polk after her father.
Just about everyone else in Mecklenburg County was also Presbyterian, but there were various shades to their zeal. Sam Polk’s father, Ezekiel, was a case in point. After the children he fathered with his second wife all died in infancy, Ezekiel became disillusioned with Presbyterian orthodoxy and began to espouse deism.
When Sam and Jane presented Ezekiel’s grandson to be baptized, a young “fire and brimstone” minister named James Wallis chose to interrogate Sam at length about the depths of his own commitment to Presbyterian doctrine. A heated argument ensued and the result was that little James Knox Polk was taken home without receiving the sacrament of baptism. Jane was mortified. Quite an uproar ensued throughout Mecklenburg County as Ezekiel voiced his views louder and louder and the Reverend Wallis preached back with equal passion. As if mortification weren’t enough, Jane Polk was soon caught squarely in the middle of the debate when her widowed mother married none other than the Reverend Wallis’s widower father. But by then, Ezekiel and most of the Polks were looking farther west.
In 1803, Ezekiel Polk led four of his children and their families into the Duck River country of Middle Tennessee in search of new land. At first, Sam and Jane stayed behind in Mecklenburg with their son James and his two younger sisters and a brother. By the time another son was born and the crops of 1806 harvested, Sam and Jane had also left Mecklenburg and made the four-hundredmile trek over the Smokies to Ezekiel’s settlement south of Nashville. Ostensibly a farmer and part-time surveyor, Sam Polk quickly turned to land speculation.
With half the area populated by kin, it wasn’t long before the Polk clan was instrumental in establishing the county of Maury and the new town of Columbia as the county seat. Sam Polk was soon a county judge, a respected civic leader, and well on his way to becoming downright wealthy. One of the influential men of Tennessee to grace the Polk house from time to time was Andrew Jackson, by then an ex-judge of the state superior court and a well-established land speculator in his own right.
Sam’s son James, however, was not doing well. His schooling to date had been marginal, in large part because of his rather poor health. On a rough-and-tumble frontier where robust men like Andrew Jackson epitomized manhood, James was decidedly frail. In time, his chronic abdominal pains were diagnosed as urinary stones, but in this era before general anesthetic or even proper antiseptic agents, a surgical solution was a major undertaking.
In the fall of 1812, Sam Polk determined to send his almostseventeen- year-old son to Philadelphia to receive the care of Dr. Philip Syng Physick, later known as “the father of American surgery.” Resting uncomfortably on a makeshift bed in a covered wagon, James bounced along as the eight-hundred-mile journey from Columbia began.
But before traveling very far into Kentucky, James “was seized by a paroxysm more painful than any that had preceded it.” Doubting that he could survive all the way to Philadelphia, the Polks turned instead to Dr. Ephraim McDowell of Danville, Kentucky, who—relatively speaking—was also a surgeon of some note.
Relying on a liberal dose of brandy as both anesthetic and antisepsis, Dr. McDowell made an incision behind the young man’s scrotum and forced a sharp, pointed instrument called a gorget through his prostate and into the bladder. The urinary stone, or stones, were then removed with forceps. Any way one looks at it, the procedure was a ghastly invasion of one’s body. James recovered quickly, however, and outwardly appeared no worse for the wear.
Relieved of this health burden, James made the most of his newfound energy. Sam Polk offered to set his son up in the mercantile business, but James was determined to get a proper education. In July 1813, James—despite the fact that his principal biographer chose to call him “Jimmy” and “Jim,” there is no evidence that his elders and peers called him anything but James—enrolled at a nearby Presbyterian academy.
After a year, his father agreed to send him to a more distinguished academy in Murfreesboro. James excelled there and by one account was “much the most promising young man in the school.” Such promise was to be rewarded, and with Sam Polk by now well able to afford it, James was admitted to the University of North Carolina as a second-semester sophomore in January 1816. He had just turned twenty.
At that time, the University of North Carolina was staffed by a single administrator, one professor, a senior tutor, and two recent graduates who served as additional tutors. The most valuable education may have come from membership in one of the university’s two literary societies. James Polk joined the Dialectic Society during his first term at Chapel Hill and was soon engrossed in its weekly debates and essay presentations. It was here that he learned to speak, write, and formulate an argument.
Unfortunately, no detailed minutes remain from the meeting at which the Dialectic Society debated the question “Would an extension of territory be an advantage to the United States?” Which side did young Polk take? A majority voted no. Another topic asked whether an elected representative should “exercise his own judgment or act according to the directions of his constituents.” Polk favored the latter, as did a majority of his classmates. A less serious question asked “Is an occasional resort to female company beneficial to students?” The all-male assemblage was unanimous in its verdict.5
In due course, Polk was elected to a succession of offices in the Dialectic Society and broke a precedent by winning reelection to the presidency. In presenting a speech on that occasion, Polk told his peers, “your proficiency in extemporaneous debating will furnish you with that fluency of language, that connexion of ideas and boldness of delivery that will be equally serviceable in the council, in the pulpit and at the bar.” Considering the large number of his University of North Carolina contemporaries who went on to public service, including his roommate William D. Moseley, who became governor of Florida, Polk’s advice was well taken.
Polk graduated with honors in May 1818, but the studious young man had given his all to his academic efforts, and despite Dr. McDowell’s successful surgery, his general constitution was still frail. When Sam Polk arrived in Chapel Hill late in July to take his son home, James was in such a weakened condition that Sam returned without him. Not until October was the graduate fit enough to ride the winding mountain roads back to Tennessee. Unbeknownst to Polk, the next time he set foot in Chapel Hill, he would be president of a much larger union than the Dialectic Society. If James K. Polk came of age intellectually during his two and a half years at Chapel Hill, Tennessee in the interim had also come of age. In fact, the state was booming. Even in Columbia, its population just over three hundred, Sam Polk and his new son-in-law, James Walker, were busy chartering a bank, building a Masonic Hall, and organizing a steamboat company for the Tennessee River. James Polk might have applied his new education and his meticulous attention to detail to these kinds of business ventures. But the give-and-take of the Dialectic Society had more than whetted his appetite for the public arena, and the most obvious route into it led through admission to the bar. Determined to become a lawyer, James Polk promptly headed fifty miles north to Nashville.
The little frontier settlement that had welcomed Andrew Jackson thirty years before was now a thriving city with three thousand inhabitants and paved streets. It was the commercial hub of Middle Tennessee and was quickly becoming the political center of the entire state.
Jackson had just returned to Nashville from exploits in Spanishheld Florida. His nickname, Old Hickory—as in “tough as hickory”— had been won in the early days of the War of 1812 and his national fame secured by his lopsided defeat of the British at New Orleans at the war’s end. Most recently, Jackson had led U.S. army regulars, Tennessee volunteers, and Georgia militia into Florida during the First Seminole War. Largely on his own initiative, he had forced the Spanish to abandon West Florida to the United States. Now Jackson was building a mansion he called the Hermitage, east of Nashville. Whether Jackson or Sam Polk provided James with an introduction to Felix Grundy is uncertain but probable, and James was soon clerking for one of Nashville’s most celebrated lawyers.
Felix Grundy quickly became James Polk’s first mentor.
Grundy grew up in Kentucky, helped that territory become a state, represented it in the U.S. House of Representatives, and ultimately became the state’s chief justice. But Tennessee beckoned, and Grundy climbed a similar legal and political ladder there, representing the state in Congress and achieving some notoriety as one of the war hawks who urged war with Great Britain and then cheered Andy Jackson’s every military move.
By the time James Polk came calling in 1819, Grundy was known far and wide across Tennessee for his mastery of juries as well as his wide circle of political connections. Polk readily immersed himself in both Grundy’s law library and his school of personal experience.
Polk’s fellow clerk was a young man named Francis B. Fogg, who was so studious as to make even the scholarly Polk look like a legal slacker. That year, Grundy was elected to the state legislature, and he suggested that Fogg accompany him to the upcoming legislative session and seek election as clerk of the state senate. Fogg thought a moment and then pronounced himself far too busy with a mountain of legal minutiae to do so. Polk, however, jumped at the chance. After all, to him the law was the vehicle, not the destination. So, with Grundy’s endorsements, Polk accompanied him to Murfreesboro, where the legislature was to meet. On September 20, 1819, the Tennessee senate elected the young man from Columbia as its clerk and proceeded to pay him the then-princely sum of six dollars per day to manage its paperwork. (The legislators themselves were paid only four dollars per diem.) That Polk performed his job effectively and with precision was evidenced by his reelection without opposition when the next legislature convened in 1821.
In the process, he learned the full gamut of parliamentary procedure and legislative routine.
Meanwhile, because the legislature rarely met for longer than a month, Polk was able to complete his legal studies with Grundy and gain admission to the state bar when the circuit court convened at Columbia in June 1820. The Polk clan surely celebrated, and Sam Polk even provided his son with his first case by managing to be arrested for public fighting. James secured his father’s release with a fine of one dollar plus costs, and Sam was instrumental in paying for the construction of a one-room law office and library for his son’s practice.
That young Polk was a stickler for detail became apparent early. When Jackson protege Sam Houston, who was then practicing law in Nashville and who would later achieve enduring fame in Texas, sent Polk a judgment from a North Carolina court for execution in Tennessee, Polk rejected it. Finding the paperwork “incomplete, and not authenticated in the manner required,” Polk advised Houston not “to commence an action on this record” until it was corrected. (In their demeanor, Polk and Houston were polar opposites, and Houston is supposed to have once observed that Polk was “a victim of the use of water as a beverage.”)
But Sam Houston wasn’t the only one destined for fame who crossed paths with Polk in those early years. Riding to Murfreesboro for the September 1821 session of the legislature, Polk fell in with a newly elected state representative from Lawrence County.
His name was David Crockett, and while he, too, was the opposite of Polk in almost every way, Crockett had honed a knack for stump speaking that got him elected by a two-to-one majority. Some years later, after their political views had diverged, Crockett poked a little fun at Polk and perhaps himself by recounting how in the course of that ride Polk had expressed to Crockett his opinion that the legislature was likely to enact changes in the state’s judiciary. “Now so help me God,” Crockett later wrote in his autobiography, “I knew no more what a ‘radical change’ and a ‘judiciary’ meant than my horse, but looking straight into Mr. Polk’s face as though I understood all about it, I replied, ‘I presume so.’ ”
Just when James Polk became close to Andrew Jackson is uncertain. Most likely, it was a relationship begun in passing at Polk’s father’s house and nurtured by time and Jackson’s connections with the extended Polk family. Having no natural children of their own, Old Hickory and his wife, Rachel, were always taking young men of promise under their wings. Similarly, it can’t be said with absolute certainty when Polk met the only person to hold more sway over him than Old Hickory. Her name was Sarah Childress.