No man could have lived through such a nomination and election without being either steeled or broken, and Polk's whole political life produced in him a determination to curb his rebellious party and be absolute master of his administration. At his inauguration he was only forty-nine (making him the youngest president until that time), a short, thin, angular man whose long, graying hair was brushed back from a habitually sad, unsmiling face with high cheekbones and fixed jaw. Everyone remembered his deep-set piercing eyes. The personality beneath this drab exterior was introverted, intense, narrow, and almost humorless, although alert and not without compassion. His mind was quick and shrewd, and his memory for names, faces, and records penetrating and well organized. But he lacked charisma; he might impress doubters with his determination, but he warmed few hearts and stirred few souls.
As a good Jacksonian, Polk brought to the White House a conviction that the president, the only true representative of national interests, must dominate the government and be the very symbol of the common man. More than any other Jacksonian, Polk understood and accepted the hard, grinding work that this responsibility entailed and almost literally drove himself to an early grave. American politicians commonly took long vacations from the summer heat and the year-round strains of the capital, but for one period of thirteen months Polk never traveled more than three or four miles from Washington. He mastered the routine and details of every executive department, delegated power with great reluctance, and called for frequent and full accountings.
While Polk's contemporaries and biographers have given him full credit for determination and scrupulous honesty in personal affairs, they have also recognized a certain indirection or deviousness in his political methods. Allan Nevins has called him "cute" in the Yankee sense, but "by his lights . . . eminently truthful and upright." Literally truthful he may have been, but he kept his own counsel, let others guess (often wrongly) at his intentions, and ignored or privately resented the later recriminations. From his earliest days in the House, Polk was a "good hater." He thought opposition among Whigs natural, if misguided, and came to respect a few whom he recognized as honorable men; but opposition from fellow Democrats, especially John C. Calhoun's faction, was to him simple treason, motivated by selfish ambition, and this he rarely forgave. Beginning in August 1845, he kept a diary of his discussions and reactions. One cannot be sure that he was completely frank, even with himself, but Polk's record brings the historian closer to the arcanum of presidential policy-making than is his usual lot.
Polk's handling of his cabinet reflected the combination of decision and caution that lay at the heart of his character. He chose a moderately able group of men, half of them from Congress and well balanced geographically. Like Polk, Secretary of State James Buchanan came from a Presbyterian farmer's family and rough-and-tumble politics in a state (Pennsylvania) that had contributed heavily to Polk's election. Ambitious, persistent, and calculating like his master, Buchanan was also timid and irresolute (Polk once said that he "sometimes acts like an old maid"). Secretary of the Treasury Robert J. Walker, an excitable, frail little man who was often ill, supported Polk's expansionist and low-tariff policies enthusiastically, reorganized the Treasury Department and the customs service, and implemented the new subtreasury system. Secretary of War William L. Marcy, though hampered by Congress, administered a wartime army with reasonable efficiency. Secretary of the Navy George Bancroft (later minister to Britain) carried through the foundation of the United States Naval Academy on the executive's initiative after Congress had delayed action for years. Other cabinet members—John Y. Mason (attorney general, then navy), Cave Johnson (postmaster general), and Nathan Clifford (attorney general)—supplied Polk with personal friendship (especially Mason and Johnson), party connections, and steady, competent service.
Polk managed to get full advantage from the advice of this experienced cabinet while keeping it under complete control. Holding cabinet meetings twice a week, he opened all subjects to discussion, often keeping his own opinions secret until he was ready to act. Members were encouraged to call frequently at the White House to present departmental problems, and Buchanan, who had the most complex duties of all, made almost daily visits. (Characteristically, being a strong party man, he caused more trouble for Polk over patronage than over foreign policy and at one point agonized for weeks over whether to resign and join the Supreme Court.) When Polk asked Buchanan, like other cabinet members, to forswear presidential ambitions while in the cabinet, he carefully hedged his reply. Polk often doubted his loyalty but never quite reached the point of asking him to resign. While Polk was a demanding master, he was as considerate to his cabinet members as his chilly, unbending nature allowed, and they constituted a more genuine "official family" (as he sometimes called them) than in most other administrations.
In his handling of Congress, Polk was the first president consistently to mount campaigns for administrative measures, and he exercised a degree of control unique in the period between Jackson and Lincoln, when Congress usually dominated the executive. Paradoxically, in some important matters, such as the Oregon question, Polk ostentatiously sought coordinate congressional action so as to share the blame in case of an unpopular decision. (In such cases, he was careful to avoid creating the precedent that the executive must necessarily consult Congress before acting.) Such flexible control, even though it sometimes faltered, was a high achievement, for the Democrats had only a six-vote margin in the Senate from 1845 to 1847, and in the congressional elections of 1846 they lost control of the House of Representatives; furthermore, in both houses the party was seriously divided by regional and other factions.
Polk used a variety of expedients and methods to enforce his will on Congress. He maintained constant touch with both the leadership and the rank and file by opening the White House to them daily and frequently summoning them for conferences, producing a steady stream of legislators up and down Pennsylvania Avenue. He used his cabinet members as go-betweens, especially Cave Johnson, Buchanan, and Walker, and before an important vote several of them might be seen in the Capitol, buttonholing their friends. (At the same time, Polk gravely deplored the developing practice of congressional lobbying by private interests.) Polk put pressure on doubtful Democrats with urgent editorials in the party newspaper, the Union , setting forth his arguments. He gave close and unremitting attention to patronage, although no record has been found of specific deals for desired votes.
As with many other presidents, Polk's influence over Congress was most effective early in his term of office. In his first major confrontation, over the Oregon question, Polk could not obtain what he sought, a simple resolution advising him to notify Britain of the abrogation of the 1827 convention on the joint occupancy of Oregon, and he had to be satisfied with a mildly qualified recommendation after a three-month debate that left permanent scars on the party. During the spring and summer of 1846 he enjoyed a string of victories: quick approval of a new Oregon treaty; a declaration of war against Mexico; a new, lowered tariff; and the subtreasury act. The declaration of war was a tour de force for which administration leaders unmercifully pressed a coalition of Whigs and pacifist Democrats with imputations of unpatriotic slackness, which rankled throughout the war. In the case of the tariff, Polk won the narrowest possible victory, thanks to the political and financial blandishments of Secretary Walker; the political expertise of the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, James J. McKay; and a complicated series of compromises and votes in which presidential pressure induced more than one high-tariff politician to abandon his principles and support the bill.
During the last half of Polk's term the increasing unpopularity of the Mexican War, the Democratic loss of the House, and the incubus of the slavery question often frustrated his measures. He had trouble obtaining new regiments for the army, and Congress would not authorize the rank of lieutenant general, to which he wished to appoint Senator Thomas H. Benton, a tyro soldier but a loyal Democrat, and thereby put him in command over the skilled but Whiggish Winfield Scott. Worse still, when Polk requested a special fund to hold in reserve for peace negotiations, the House attached to the bill the Wilmot Proviso, which prohibited slavery in any territory to be acquired from Mexico. The Senate rejected this inflammatory proposal, which Polk called "mischievous & foolish," but the proviso haunted him for the rest of his administration, poisoning the atmosphere and obstructing much useful legislation. At the end of his term he managed to obtain a law establishing government in the newly acquired Oregon Territory without reference to slavery (in effect prohibiting it, since Oregon lay well to the north of the Missouri Compromise line); but because his skills were inadequate to put together a compromise for California and New Mexico, he had to leave this problem to his successor.
In his dealings with Congress, the Democratic party, and the American people at large, Polk exploited assiduously both press and patronage with moderate, if not unvarying, success. When he became president, he had long appreciated the power of the press, and not trusting the loyalty of Jackson's old newspaper, the Globe , he transferred government business to a new Washington organ, the Union . As editor he chose the venerable Thomas ("Father") Ritchie of Virginia, an experienced but old-fashioned journalist who did not have Polk's ruthlessness and sense of timing but leaked confidences in his editorials and let himself be diverted into side issues. The president sometimes intervened to write his own editorials.
Polk also fully realized the value of patronage and surrounded himself with spoils politicians (indeed, Secretary Marcy practically invented the term spoils system ), but in a factionalized party Polk often made as many enemies as friends with his appointments. Also he soon came to loathe the pressure of office seekers, and although he wrote self-righteously in his diary that he felt obliged to give up hours each day interviewing them (they were citizens, after all), he complained about them on an average of at least once a week. Far more pleasurable to him was the extensive social life he fostered in the White House with the aid of his charming and popular wife, the former Sarah Childress, but even here Polk's stiffness and lack of charisma partly defeated his purpose.
Since Polk made his most notable accomplishments in foreign relations and war, careful examination of his skills and methods in these areas is necessary. He brought no special knowledge or talent to the conduct of foreign relations; indeed, he felt little but contempt for diplomatic protocol. As a nationalist from mid-America, he possessed a strong xenophobia unmitigated by any sophisticated, cosmopolitan appreciation of European culture or institutions. If he had any model for foreign relations, it was that of the brusque, high-handed Jackson. During the Oregon controversy, he formulated what would be called today a recommendation for "eyeball" diplomacy: "I remarked . . . that the only way to treat John Bull was to look him straight in the eye; . . . that if Congress faultered [sic] or hesitated in their course, John Bull would immediately become arrogant and more grasping in his demands." Polk did not bother to make a corresponding recommendation for Mexico, his other adversary, but his writings show that he held both government and people in contempt as hardly worthy of nationality. His feelings toward Britain and Mexico could produce only a policy of bluntness and bluff. Take a bold stand, negotiate from apparent strength, assume what you cannot prove, make no concessions that can be interpreted as weakness, and keep your opponent off balance. Ideas of mutual interest and compromise formed little part of his thinking.
In several ways Polk's handling of the armed forces established precedents for some of his successors. By stationing troops in disputed territory on the Mexican border, he was able—whether intentionally or not—to provoke Mexico into war without prior recourse to Congress or the democratic process. In fighting the war Polk went beyond Madison (in the War of 1812) in the number of detailed orders he issued to his generals and the frequency of reports he expected from them, thereby reasserting the traditional American assumption of civilian control over the military. His lack of experience in military affairs hampered him in personal direction of the war somewhat more than his unfamiliarity with the technicalities of diplomacy. A greater obstacle was his remoteness from the fighting fronts, a remoteness that grew as his armies advanced into Mexico. He might make major strategic decisions in Washington, such as that to send a separate army into central Mexico, but to his great chagrin, he had to entrust most other planning to two Whig generals, Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott.
Polk was sure that his two generals were trying to undermine his administration and succeed him as president. After unwillingly dispatching Scott to Veracruz, he disloyally tried to get Benton promoted over his head. Congress rescued Polk from this blunder and allowed Scott to complete his career as the most distinguished American soldier between the Revolution and the Civil War. Polk functioned more effectively in other areas than strategic planning, working with Marcy to overhaul an underdeveloped, second-rate army and solve staggering problems of long-distance supply and administration.