While people often discuss and debate over which were the “great” U.S. Presidents, they tend to settle on those who governed at pivotal moments in history.
But there is one President who is often cited by historians as one of the country’s most effective leaders but doesn’t have the same celebrity as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. James K. Polk, who was the 11th U.S. president is featured in a newly-published book called James K. Polk and His Time.
The book contains an essay written by Dr. Alexander Marriott, Alvin Community College interim Dean of Arts and Sciences who is also a history instructor.
The book arose out of the completion of the publication of the entire extant collection of Polk’s correspondence written while he was in office. These letters to and from Polk gives historians insight into his decision making and his relationships with those in his administration.
“Polk is one of these fascinating characters who kept a diary,” Marriott said. “For historians we have this unvarnished, day-by-day account of the presidency in the middle of the 19th Century and it’s a fascinating voyage.”
Marriott’s contribution is focused on Polk’s conception of his role as commander in chief of the military during the Mexican War and how those powers were viewed in the early and mid-19th century by Polk and others.
“We think of great presidents in terms of Lincoln, Washington, FDR and these long term presidential characters,” he said. “James Polk was one of the most consequential presidents who served one term.”
What made Polk’s accomplishment of engaging and ultimately winning the Mexican-American War is that it proved a republican form of government could effectively lead a military campaign, he said.
“The performance of the republic in that war against another republic was an encouraging one,” Marriott said. “It proved the American republic's institutions were up to the challenge of a significant and far- flung conflict.”
While historians may rank him among the best for what he was able to achieve, it does not come without controversy, Marriott said. Many historians feel that Polk intentionally stoked animosity with Mexico to acquire the land that would eventually become the Southwest United States.
“That is the major critique of Polk,” he said. “This is part of a larger critique of so-called manifest destiny at the time, which is the idea that Americans were entitled to the western half of the continent.”
The book James K. Polk and His Time is available through the University of Tennessee Press.
To hear more about the book and Dr. Marriott’s contribution, check out the ACC Podcast which is available wherever podcasts are found.