Quick Bio - the letter "L" in Polk is silent (like "calf," "Kolb," and "half"), so pronounce it "Poke." He was the 11th President, 1845-1849, a former Congressman, Speaker of the House, and Governor of Tennessee. He was a Democrat in the formative days of the party, when Democrats stood for owning slaves, making money off slaves, and expanding the country with new slave states. And, like many of our early presidents, Polk was himself a slave-owner.
He was (at the time) the youngest president ever, aged 49. He married young and was a good husband (his last words were, "I love you, Sarah. For all eternity, I love you.") The Polks never had children; when he was 17, James underwent an operation to remove urinary stones which probably sterilized him by accident.
Accomplishments as the President - Polk may have been the single most effective president ever. He promised to serve only one term, and he set a short agenda. And he served just the one term without running again, and did everything on that agenda. Everything:
- The Republic of Texas wanted to join the US, and the remaining southwest was ready to be acquired. Mexico was having none of it. Polk manipulated the facts and we went to war with all due gusto. The USA won, and we got it all, through annexation, purchase, or conquest. Present-day Texas, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and Utah became US property, increasing our land area by over a third in one fell swoop and giving us coast-to-coast territory for the first time in our history. Including the Oregon Territory acquisition (q.v. below), Polk scored us the entire West Coast.
- The Oregon Territory, co-habited by the US and Britain, was heating up. Whipping Mexico's ass was one thing, but Polk was understandably quite reluctant to stage a third American/British war. Polk expertly threatened, cajoled, and negotiated, and we got all of what is now called Washington State, Oregon, and Idaho. Britain was left with western Canada. (Cue trombone: wah-wah-wahhh.) To satisfy the pro-slave Democrats and anti-slave Whigs, the Mexican acquisitions were permitted to be slave states if they so chose (not all did), while the Oregon ones were not given the option. This compromise made many people content, or at least feeling like no one got the upper hand.
- Polk reduced the tariffs on foreign trade. The government got less for each transaction, but imports and exports exploded, so the US (and fat-cat Southern plantation owners who exported their cotton) made out very well. - Polk reformed the sinking Treasury system by creating an independent intermediate treasury, which (for a while) calmed the obscene private and government banking situation in the country. This was an important step in curbing the constant mini-economic depressions the US suffered in its first 60 years.
- In his spare time, Polk created the Department of the Interior, founded the US Naval Academy, got the Smithsonian and Washington Monument started, and introduced postage stamps as a better means of proving payment on letters. All in four years. With a Congress and a country that was as deeply divided as it gets (the Civil War was only 12 years away).
In short, Polk got shit done.
(Please note: this isn't a list of my four favorite presidents, or the four best presidents, or the four most noble, or the four who should be on the nickel instead of Jefferson, or even my ideal version of a new Mount Rushmore. It's just a list, as the title says, of four dudes who actually got shit done.)