Saturday, March 23, 2013

Presidential Character: Week Eleven, The Good And Bad of Completing An Agenda

One of the knocks on One-Term Presidents is that they don't succeed, or at least don't do well enough in office to warrant a Second Term, and so a lot of One-Termers end up in the bottom quartile of Presidential rankings.

Say hello to the single One-Termer who mocks that assumption.

Of candidates up for office, James K. Polk was literally an out-of-left-field choice (known as a dark horse) for the Democratic Party in 1844.  By then, Polk had been out of elected office for four years.  He had a decent resume - Speaker of the U.S. House, one-time Governor of Tennessee - but recent efforts to get re-elected as Governor failed.  What happened in 1844 was that the Democrats were divided between Van Buren - he was still an active force in the party - and rising Lewis Cass.  Faced with a deadlock, allies of both Polk and his mentor Andrew Jackson dropped hints that Jackson (the party's true leader) favored Polk as a compromise candidate.  Polk and Van Buren could both claim being Jackson's protege: but Van Buren already endured a tough earlier administration while Polk was a clean slate.  Polk also pledged to voluntarily stick to one term, giving the likes of Cass another chance at the brass ring.

Polk won the office with several advantages: The Whigs were still in disarray over the betrayals by Tyler, the nation was at the beginnings of the Manifest Destiny urge to spread westward to the Pacific which the Democrats pledged to do, and the Whig candidate was Henry Clay (the first three-time candidate, losing all three).

And so Polk became President.  Can we say what temperament he had serving the office?

Disregard the personal stuff: Polk was a teetotaler who hosted the first Dry (no TV and no beer... makes Homer something-something...) White House, and was viewed by contemporaries as lacking in wit and oratory skill.  Considering that historians view Polk as one of the most successful Presidents in office - even compared to Two-Termers - by the simple fact he successfully completed every item on his political agenda, we can be certain Polk falls into the Active column.

That political agenda focused on roughly five items, which does make it relatively easy for a One-Termer to focus and complete (especially when Polk knew he had only one term to do it all).  Most of the agenda focused on the westward expansion: the Annexation of Texas (Tyler completed that before Polk took office), the acquisition of California and all the points between California and Texas from Mexico (something Mexico wasn't keen on happening), and the acquisition of the Oregon Territory from Russia and Great Britain/Canada (the Fifty-Four Forty Or Fight).  The other two key points were low tariffs (popular in the South and West, very unpopular in the North), and a resolution to the national banking issue with an independent treasury system.

The low tariffs passed, and Polk presided over the establishment of an independent treasury system that lasted until 1913.  What Polk's best remembered for are - of course - the War and the Compromise.

The Mexican-American War began over that Texas annexation: Mexico viewed it as a "hostile act" by the United States.  It definitely put a crimp in any attempt by Polk to negotiate a peaceful purchase of the California territories (which in those days were sparsely populated and poorly managed).  Polk used the hostility to build up tensions, making things worse by sending American troops into contested Texas land between the Nueces River (where Mexico claimed the Texas border to be) and the Rio Grande (where Texas and now the United States claimed the border).  When Mexican forces fired on those troops, killing eleven, Polk had his cause for war.

Compare that to the issue over the Oregon Territory.  The United States and Canada/Great Britain had issue over where the border should be when they got around to drawing their national maps out that far west.  American expansionists wanted the whole territory, reaching up to where Russia claimed their border (54-degree 40 parallel).  It gave rise to the cry of "Fifty-Four Forty or Fight!"  Polk wanted to secure Oregon as a trade-off to Northerners who were upset about Texas and the then-growing war with Mexico (territories that were then south of the Missouri Compromise line keeping slave-owning south of said line).  But he also didn't want to fight two separate wars over two borders: worse, he probably feared Mexico getting a serious ally with the UK.  So he compromised, agreeing with Great Britain to extend the current U.S. / Canada border on the 49th Parallel all the way out to the Puget Sound.

This was the point I was getting to, evidence that would back my argument that Polk was an Active-Positive President.  I know, a little shocking, right?  A guy who didn't seem to enjoy the perks of being President.  But it's not the perks of the office that define the Active-Positive: it's the willingness and sometimes eagerness to work the job.  And Polk is considered one of the busiest, hardest-working Presidents we've had (one of the youngest elected to the office, Polk left severely aged and in ill health in just four years).

I'd argued earlier that most A-P Presidents try to avoid wars, both due to their compromising deal-making attitudes and due to the scariness of letting a war get out of control.  But for the A-Ps who DO go to war - usually by circumstance, sometimes by choice as in Polk's case - they tend to be craftily good at civilian management of "The War Effort."

Polk made astute moves as President managing the Mexican-American War: he promoted generals who knew their stuff and let them get to it.  He had the advantage of a federal military that had learned their mistakes from the last war and had developed a better professional system for their army.  The logistics of fighting a relatively distant war were resolved with some efficiency: troops were well-supplied for the most part.  Polk and the U.S. Army had another advantage in that Mexico simply wasn't ready for fighting: troops poorly trained and supplied, few defensive positions or forts, and a disorganized home government and military.  It didn't help Mexico that they brought in Santa Anna, arguably one of the Worst Military Leaders Ever, to serve as a general.  Santa Anna, an ambitious political figure throughout Mexico's early history, promptly made himself dictator and promptly mismanaged Mexico's war effort.  How bad was he?  He got his prosthetic leg (wounded fighting the French earlier: Santa Anna was an idiot but he was at least willing to get into the mosh pit) captured by U.S. troops who put it on display.  But I digress...

An interesting point in noting Polk's behavior as President is the war's resolution.  The United States pretty much won every battle and occupied most of Mexico from the Texan border (wherever that was) to the shores of the Pacific Ocean well into Mexico's own capitol.  There were fellow Democrats - mostly Southerners, by the by, eager for as much slave territory they could get - calling on Polk to annex ALL of Mexico.  While an A-P President would consider an ambitious move like that  - Jefferson and Monroe earlier seizing the chance of the Louisiana Purchase - Polk had to recognize the limits of such a move: it would have meant occupying a hostile Mexican territory, and it would have angered Northerners at odds with the South's attempts at slavery expansion.

In a way, Polk showed his Adaptive nature in a unique way: he stuck to his original agenda which meant compromising against his fellow expansionists and compromising with the Mexican government with a relatively reasonable peace treaty.  Polk got California like he wanted and resolved the Texan border issue like he wanted: Mexico received payment for the lands which they needed to fund their rebuilding efforts.  No, Mexico may not have liked how the war ended - especially when GOLD was found in California mere months after the war - but both sides could live with the treaty.  And in most respects it was a smart move on Polk's count: it stabilized the border with Mexico and most likely prevented a civil war between North and South launching right then if he had taken all of Mexico.

It still didn't stop the acceleration to civil war, though.  Again, the sin of an Active-Positive President is that they don't see the consequences of their actions (personal thesis: every political action creates an unequal and disproportionate reaction).  Polk hoped by securing the borders for Texas, California and Oregon that he would appease both North and South: instead it made Northerners angry that Polk and his fellow southern Democrats were working around the limits of the Missouri Compromise; and it made Southerners angry because Polk didn't take more land from Mexico (they were also upset Polk didn't press the issue with Spain over a failed attempt to purchase Cuba, one of Polk's few failures).

Another consequence Polk tried to avert was purely political: while Polk's nature as an A-P meant he hired competent people to do the jobs needed doing, it meant he promoted to high rank a Whig general - Zachary Taylor - who quickly became successful war-time general.  Even today, Successful War-Time General = Presidential Candidate, and Polk realized he was giving his opposing party an invaluable would-be Presidential candidate.  So he stopped Taylor's advance into Mexico and sent another general into battle: Winfield Scott.  Scott unfortunately for Polk and the Democrats was also a Whig, and he too became a Successful War-Time General.  Taylor still went on to the White House (SEE next week), while Scott did try a run for the office and later became a key strategist for the Union side against the southerner pro-slavery forces that made up the Confederacy.

With regards to his political agenda, with the completion of his stated goals, Polk is considered a Great President: successful by the quantity of his victories.  In terms of the quality of his goals... well, that's left to the history books and the opinion-makers.  You do have to give props to a guy who does what he promised to do.

Just note, don't mention Polk's name anywhere south of the Rio Grande.  He's not as popular in Mexico as he is in the United States...

Next Week: All Presidential Conspiracy Theories start with THIS guy.  I'm not joking.

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