James Knox Polk is so little known to even the educated public that essayist James Thurber once suggested that a society be formed to invent and circulate amusing anecdotes about him. Yet Polk, who acquired roughly one-third of the territory that today comprises the United States, is consistently ranked by historians as one of the most effective U.S. presidents. Seigenthaler crisply summarizes the conventional case for Polk's (near) greatness. Coming into office, Polk listed four goals for his administration: reducing tariffs, acquiring California from Mexico and Oregon from the United Kingdom, and introducing the "independent subtreasury" system to take U.S. funds out of the coffers of private banks. He accomplished them all. As to why Polk is not better remembered, Seigenthaler notes that historians have generally sympathized with Whig critics of the Mexican War and that Polk's journals reveal an unsympathetic and small-minded personality. One could add to this that the battles over tariffs and bank policy are utterly incomprehensible to all but a handful of specialists today, and the fall of the British Empire makes it hard for Americans to appreciate how much skill and daring went into the diplomatic bluff that led Sir Robert Peel's government to accept a division of the Oregon Territory that so markedly favored the weaker United States.
James K. Polk waged war against Mexico, and almost against Britain, to increase the size of the US by a full third. Yet, writes fellow Tennessean Seigenthaler, "somehow he is the least acknowledged among our presidents, which is somewhat mystifying." Perhaps not so mystifying, given that the Mexican-American War, widely known at the time as "Mr. Polk's War," was highly controversial, protested by the likes of Emerson, Thoreau, and a young Abe Lincoln. Even today, a certain amount of shame attaches to the American invasion of Mexico, which netted California, New Mexico, most of Arizona, and other territories, serving to lessen Polk's reputation. Seigenthaler, founding editorial director of USA Today and veteran Tennessean journalist, allows that Polk, like his mentor Andrew Jackson-Polk's career, he writes, "was grafted as a limb to the trunk of Jackson's political tree"-was always spoiling for a fight. But, he argues, Polk worked from a sense of "moral certitude and self-righteousness" and probably believed, as did so many of his compatriots, that only American intervention could save Mexico from its innate barbarism. Interestingly, Seigenthaler adds, Polk seems to have been reading the mood of the nation correctly when he advocated annexation of the then-independent Republic of Texas in 1844, which the leading politicians, Democrat Martin Van Buren and Whig Henry Clay, refused to do. Swept into national office, Polk came to see states' rights as secondary to the national interest, and he became a champion of American empire-building. His work in this regard won him admirers, but it also led him to "virtually incarcerate himself in the White House for the full tenure of his presidency"and to micro-manage his generals 2,000 miles distant, who disregarded his orders anyway. The stress of his presidency, the author suggests, condemned him to an early grave, and he died soon after leaving office. Against many historians, Seigenthaler applauds Polk for achievements that he insists are "nothing short of remarkable, changing forever the geography and economy of the country."