James K. Polk is America’s Most Underrated President

Robert “Jerry” Pfeifer, Contributing Writer

James K. Polk was the eleventh president of the United States, leading the nation from 1845 until 1849. Polk was one of the strongest, most dynamic, fruitful and influential presidents of the nineteenth century. His crown achievement was expanding the nation over one million square miles of land, nearly doubling its territory and uniting both coasts.

According to the UVA Miller Center, Polk expanded America more than any other president. First, he annexed the Republic of Texas. Next, with his tactical guidance, the U.S. won the Mexican War, gaining California and most of the Western territory along with it. He also acquired Oregon through negotiations with the British. He accomplished almost every objective he trumpeted during his campaign, something very few presidents have done. Famously, he was also the only president to fulfill the campaign promise not to pursue a second term, despite being widely popular come the end of his first. According to History, he also fulfilled other goals he set for his administration, which included lowering tariffs and reforming the banking system.

When I talk to my peers about Polk’s presidential accomplishments, they immediately condemn him. Many have a problem with his fulfillment of Manifest Destiny, in which he helped expand America to the opposite coast. But to make a fair judgment on whether or not to condemn Polk, it’s important to know exactly why people dislike Manifest Destiny. According to popular culture, the primary reason Manifest Destiny is believed to be wrong is because it led to the oppression of Native Americans, created military conflict and led to the extension of slavery into new colonies. However, in the case of Polk, only one reason is genuinely applicable.

According to the Constitutional Rights Foundation, after Mexico failed to repay the $4.5 million they owed to the U.S., Polk offered Mexico $25 million and cancellation of the debt in exchange for California and New Mexico. After Mexico refused the offer, Polk moved troops into disputed lands between the Nueces and Rio Grande rivers. This assertion provoked Mexican troops to strike first and fire against the American forces, which gave Polk the excuse to declare war. This war was one-sided, but Mexico waited almost a year to sign a peace treaty even though they failed to win a single battle, of which there were quite a few. The terms of the treaty were that the U.S. would annex about half of Mexico in exchange for $15 million. Polk micromanaged the military strategy as a tactician would throughout the entire war to achieve the optimum outcome and was very successful – after all, he had not lost a single battle.

The conflict was indeed necessary for Manifest Destiny; however, the oppression of Native Americans and diffusion of slavery wasn’t, and Polk had barely any interactions with policy decisions affecting either of these major issues. Still, when I speak with my peers, there is a misconception about Mexico’s relationship with their territory. People almost seem to equate them to natives, while the truth is far from it. They were a Spanish colony that ceded from Spain only twenty-five years before the Mexican War. Essentially, Mexico was very similar to the U.S. as an empire and should be considered entirely different from Native Americans.

James K. Polk, like most preceding presidents, indeed held enslaved people. Besides that utterly valid point, everything else is misinformed or opinionated. The war with Mexico wasn’t unprovoked – Mexico defaulted on a large debt and attacked first. Polk did not strip a nation of its sovereignty but instead negotiated the dominion of certain territories. 

James Elizares von Baeyer, another first-year student, shared in a conversation with me, “Despite fulfilling Manifest Destiny and increasing land size, those were all superficial accomplishments. It’s for the sake of America, but it does not forgive the atrocities he committed against the Native Americans he displaced.”

Von Baeyer seems to agree with the validation for Manifest Destiny – that it was beneficial to America. Still, he has the perception that Polk displaced and committed atrocities against Native Americans when this is wholly untrue. Even after I explain who Polk was, most confuse him with the horrors of Andrew Jackson: who instigated the Trail of Tears. People may associate them because Polk was also a Democrat, owner of slaves, a Southerner and supporter of Western expansion. Still, Polk had very little interaction with Native American or slave legislation. Should the atrocities someone committed tarnish the reputation of others simply by association?

According to a YouGovAmerica poll that recorded answers varying from “very favorable” to “very unfavorable;” between those two answers, only one out of three Americans regards Polk very favorably. To put this into perspective, Thomas Jefferson, who acquired a comparably sizeable territory through the Louisiana Purchase and owned slaves, received an astonishing, almost six times greater, “very favorable” ratio to “very unfavorable” ratio, and Andrew Jackson himself also received a better ratio than Polk. So why is there such a disparity between two relatively similar presidents? Perhaps Polk is simply overlooked. Either way, I think credit should go where it’s deserved. For the reasons I’ve mentioned, James K. Polk should be considered one of the most accomplished U.S. presidents.