I continue my look at US Presidents for their leadership during their presidencies. Today, I consider James K. Polk, who was America’s 11th President. While only serving one-term, his presidency was certainly momentous. It provided one international war (albeit hemispheric); one near war and two major changes in economic policy. It also provided several lessons for the or business leader.
Polk, the Democratic Party candidate, was elected to the Presidency in 1844, in what many believed was an upset win over the far more well-known and better regarded Henry Clay, the Whig Party candidate. Polk has been claimed to be the first dark-horse candidate to be nominated for the Presidency and then to win it. However, Polk’s background demonstrated a firm grounding in the American experience.
Polk came from Scotch-Irish stock who immigrated to the then frontier on the eastern slope of the Appalachian Mountains in the 1600s. His grandfather led the greater Polk clan over the mountains and into Tennessee in 1803. Polk’s family became established and if not aristocracy, certainly gentry, by the 1820s when Polk was sent to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for college. (Polk is the only UNC grad to become President). Moreover, Polk became a part of the American political class. He trained as a lawyer. Beginning in 1825, Polk served 14 years in Congress; four as speaker of the house. In 1839, he was elected Governor of Tennessee for one term. He was a candidate for Vice President (VP) in 1840. When the 1844 Democratic convention became deadlocked, Polk came out as the candidate on the 9th ballot.
Announcing himself to be a one-term candidate in his election campaign, Polk set himself four goals for his administration, all of which he achieved. Walter Borneman, writing in a Harvard Business Review (HBR) article entitled “Presidential Leadership: Pursue a Vision but Mind the Details”, said of Polk’s “goals–“four great measures” he called them–that he enumerated for his administration: the resolution of the decades-old joint occupation of the Oregon country with Great Britain; the acquisition of California and an expanse of the Southwest; the reduction of the tariff that was crippling the southern economy; and the creation of an independent treasury system immune from recent national bank wars.”
Resolution with England over Oregon
If he had done nothing else, Polk’s settlement with Great Britain of the boundary dispute over the Oregon Territories would reign supreme. The US had long called for a boundary of 54 degrees, 50 minutes; while England lobbied for the 49th parallel. The former is in far north (now British Columbia) and the latter the current boundary. But the 49th parallel slices across Vancouver Island. Polk actually threatened war over this dispute. This serious threat coupled with the change in British economics in the mid-1840s with the repeal of the Corn Laws, induced Britain to be more desirous of a settlement.
Polk demanded that the British make a formal offer of the 49th parallel, which they did. Polk then ceded the whole of Vancouver Island to England with the US retaining shipping lanes in Puget Sound. A treaty was signed, and it was ratified by the Senate in a 41–14 vote. Polk’s willingness to risk war with Britain had frightened many, but his tough negotiation tactics may have gained the US concessions from the British (particularly regarding the Columbia River) that a more conciliatory president might not have won.
Acquisition of California and an Expanse of the Southwest
Here Polk tried a much softer tact which did not work and led to the US War with Mexico in 1848. This War started over the admission of the Republic of Texas into the Union but ended with the successful purchase of California and the now western states of New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and parts of Utah and Colorado. It also settled the dispute with Mexico over Texas once and for all time (unless you include the Zimmerman Telegraph), setting the border at the Rio Grande River. While many, including Abraham Lincoln, portrayed Polk as a war monger, it is clear from the historical record, that Polk favored negotiations with Mexico.
However, Mexico refused to negotiate and attacked US soldiers on US soil and the country went to war. Even then, Polk attempted to negotiate with Mexico during the hostilities. It took the capture of Mexico’s capital and complete defeat of the Mexican Army to secure a treaty, ending the war and the US purchasing the aforementioned territory for a $15 million payment to Mexico, culminating in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. This treaty and the ending of the dispute with England over the Oregon Territories doubled the size of the US.
The Reduction of the Tariff
There were two economic issues that Polk accomplished which greatly furthered US economic interests. The first was the reduction of the Tariff of 1842. Polk directed Secretary of the Treasury Robert Walker to draft a lower tariff, which Polk submitted to Congress. After intense lobbying by both sides, the bill passed the House and by a one-vote margin, cast by VP George Dallas to break a tie, the Senate in July 1846. The VP, although from protectionist Pennsylvania, voted for the bill, having decided his best political prospects lay in supporting the administration. It substantially reduced rates that had been set by the Tariff of 1842. The reduction of tariffs and the repeal of the Corn Laws in Great Britain; both coupled with the rapprochement in relations between the countries after the resolution of the Oregon Territories dispute led to a boom in Anglo-American trade. By reducing tariffs, US trade and economic fortunes increased.
Creation of an Independent Treasury System
Polk was dead set against another chartered National Bank. Yet even he recognized the need for the US to have a location to securely store species. To do so, Polk signed the Independent Treasury Act into law on August 6, 1846. It provided that the public revenues were to be retained in the Treasury building and in sub-treasuries in various cities, separate from private or state banks. The system would remain in place until the passage of the Federal Reserve Act in 1913. Given the rancor over Bank Charter feud during the Jackson years, this was a welcome relief for both creditors and debtors of the US.
Polk once famously said, “I intend to be myself President of the United States.” He did so and his leadership style was quite modern in many ways. He kept his eye on the strategic picture but also was able to execute tactical details. Borneman noted, “Polk rarely allowed himself to become overwhelmed, never feared delegating, and always demanded accountability in return. “I have made myself acquainted with the duties of the subordinate [Cabinet] officers,” Polk wrote late in his term, “and have probably given more attention to details than any of my predecessors.” He concluded his piece on Polk with the following, “But by minding the details without taking his eye off his major goals, James K. Polk left a political legacy that transformed both the executive power of the presidency and the geography of the American nation.”