Polk and the Presidency

[ History ]

Polk and the Presidency

By Charles A. McCoy

How and why James K. Polk, the eleventh President of the United States, responded to the challenges of his times and thereby increased the authority and importance of the Presidential role for future incumbents.



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6 x 9 | 252 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-74139-3

“Who is James K. Polk?” was a rallying cry of the Whigs during the campaign of 1844. Polk answered that question adequately by winning the election against his Whig opponent, Henry Clay.

Today the question might be recast—respectfully, not derisively—“Who was James K. Polk?” Few persons could give more than a perfunctory answer, even though when he left office the United States was half again larger than it was when he became president.

Polk, unlike his close friend Andrew Jackson, has been the subject of but few books. Stern and serious-minded, intent upon his work, he never caught the public’s imagination as did some of the more magnetic personalities who filled the office of president. His lack of personal charm, however, should not hide from generations of Americans the great benefit he brought their country and his key role in developing the powers of the presidency.

This book will be a revelation to readers who might be confounded, even momentarily, by the question “Who was James K. Polk?” It is based on the assumption that the presidential power-role, though expressed in the Constitution and prescribed by law, is not a static role but a dynamic one, shaped and developed by a president’s personal reaction to the crises and circumstances of the times during which he serves. And Polk faced many crises, among them the Mexican War, the Oregon boundary dispute, the tariff question, Texas’s admission to the Union, and the establishment by the United States of a more stable and respected position in the world of nations.

Based on the dynamic power-role theory, the book analyzes its theme of how and why James K. Polk, the eleventh president of the United States, responded to the challenges of his times and thereby increased the authority and importance of the presidential role for future incumbents.

Charles McCoy became interested in writing this book after two of his friends, both informed historians, pointed out to him that James K. Polk was a neglected figure in American history. Preliminary research showed this to be true, but without reason—for, as the eminent historian George Bancroft said, “viewed from the standpoint of results, [Polk’s administration] was perhaps the greatest in our national history, certainly one of the greatest.” For his own astute appraisal of the Polk administration, McCoy emphasized the use of firsthand sources of information: the Polk Diary; newspapers of the period; the unpublished papers of Polk, Jackson, Trist, Marcy, and Van Buren; and congressional documents and reports.


1. Growth of the Presidency from Washington to Polk
The Federalists
The Jeffersonians
The Jacksonians
Conclusion: Unused Authority Awaiting Presidential Control

2. The First Dark Horse
The Background of the 1844 Campaign
The Democratic Nomination of Candidates
The Election Campaign of 1844

3. Polk’s Concept of the Presidency
The President as Head of the State
The President and His Official Family
The President as Director of Departmental Affairs
The President as Director of the Budget
Conclusion: The Steady Control of Presidential Authority

4. Polk as Chief of Foreign Affairs
Texas—The Twenty-eighth State
The Dispute with England over Oregon
The Conflict with Mexico over an Empire
A World View
Conclusion: Polk’s Success in Foreign Affairs

5. Polk as Commander-in-Chief
Military Actions Precipitating the Mexican War
Polk Directs Grand Strategy
War for the Northern Provinces
The Campaign for Mexico City
New Mexico and California Campaign,
President Polk Controls Military Operations
Conclusion: Effective Military Control by a Nonmilitary President

6. Polk as Chief of Legislation
Polk Fights for His Legislative Program
Walker Tariff
War Measures
Territorial Government and Slavery
Senatorial Confirmation of Appointments
Treaty Ratification—Oregon
Congressional Investigations
Informal Leadership and Lobbies
Conclusion: A Dynamic Legislator of the People

7. Polk as Party Chief
Polk and the Press
Polk and Patronage
President Polk’s Personal Relations with Leading Politicians
Polk’s “No Second Term” Pledge and the Election of 1848
Conclusion: An Administrative, Not a Popular, Leader

8. Summary and Conclusions


Charles A. McCoy (1920–1995) taught political science at several universities in the United States and Australia.