President of the Day

Handy Presidents 2e
ISBN: 9781578593170

About which president did Harry Truman say, "He said exactly what he was going to do and he did it"?

  • He was a "dark horse" candidate.
  • He defeated famous Kentucky senator Henry Clay.
  • He obtained Oregon.
  • He gained California in the Mexican-American War.

James Polk

Why is Polk considered a great president?

Polk is considered by many historians to be a great president because he had several major accomplishments in his one term in office. In fact, Polk's secretary of the navy, George Bancroft, an esteemed historian, said that Polk articulated four major goals upon assuming office: (1) lower the tariffs; (2) create an independent treasury; (3) annex Oregon to the United States; and (4) obtain California from Mexico.

Polk accomplished all four of these major objectives. Twentieth-century president Harry Truman said of Polk: "He said exactly what he was going to do and he did it."

Why was Polk called the "dark horse" candidate?

In 1844, James K. Polk did not appear on the radar screen as the next president of the United States. He had just lost two consecutive bids for the governorship of Tennessee. No one thought a candidate who could not win his own state could win the presidency. Additionally, the front-runner for the Democratic Party at the 1844 convention was former President Martin Van Buren.

However, Van Buren made a serious blunder by publicly coming out against the annexation of Texas--adding the state to the Union--as did Whig candidate Henry Clay. Perhaps Van Buren and Clay wanted to avoid the thorny slavery question that was so divisive in the country. President Andrew Jackson saw an opportunity for his protégé, and with the help of other key politicians, managed to move Polk onto a later ballot at the Democratic convention.

As Van Buren could not obtain the necessary majority votes, it became clear that someone else would have to emerge. It turned out to be James K. Polk who became the Democratic Party nominee.

Whom did Polk defeat in the general election to win the presidency?

Polk defeated the legendary U.S. senator from Kentucky, Henry Clay--John Quincy Adams's former secretary of state and also a former speaker of the House of Representatives. Clay had also run for the presidency in 1832, losing to incumbent President Andrew Jackson and in 1840 when he lost the Whig nomination to William Henry Harrison, who would later become president. The Whigs thought that Clay could defeat the lesser known Polk. One of their campaign slogans was "Who is James K. Polk?"

However, Polk defeated Clay by an electoral vote margin of 170 to 105. However, he carried the popular vote by a mere 1.4 percent margin. Ironically, Polk won the presidency even though he did not carry his home state of Tennessee. He remains the only president to win the White House race while losing his own state.

How did Polk obtain Oregon?

Polk refused to back down from the British and remained steadfast in his demands that the British drop claims to the Oregon territory. Polk allegedly told at least one member of Congress: "The only way to treat John Bull [a name for Great Britain] is to look him in the eye." He acquired what is present-day Oregon, Washington, and part of Idaho. He obtained land up to the forty-ninth parallel, though not all the way to the "54-40" parallel that was desired by some in the "All Oregon" campaign.

What war did Polk wage that led to greater territory for the United States?

Fulfilling the Democrat phrase "manifest destiny," Polk engaged the United States in the Mexican-American War that led to the eventual annexation of California. Tensions were already hot between the two countries after the annexation of Texas, which had begun in earnest at the end of the Tyler administration, but completed officially in Polk's term.

But Polk wanted more for the country--the provinces of New Mexico and California. Mexican troops had crossed the Rio Grande and killed American soldiers in the dispute. Polk sent Zachary Taylor--his presidential successor--into the region. Taylor achieved several victories over the Mexican army at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma. Taylor later defeated Mexican forces at Buena Vista in 1847. American armies led by either Taylor or General Winfield Scott actually took Mexico City during the conflict.

After the United States conquered Mexico City, Mexico realized that it had better sell its land in New Mexico and California and end the war. Some speculated that the United States should simply take control of all of Mexico. This was known as the "All Mexico" campaign. Polk faced resistance to the war from many in the country, and decided to obtain peace and enlarge the country with more than a half a million square miles.

From The Handy Presidents Answer Book, Second Edition by David L. Hudson, Jr., JD., (c) Visible Ink Press(R) More than 1,600 things you never knew about our nation's leaders

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