James K. Polk, like many other American presidents of the 19th Century, is not one of the better known people to hold that high office.
Yet after just one term as president, he proved to be one of the most efficient men to ever serve in that capacity. That’s saying a lot for a government with a reputation for working notoriously slowly. At the surface level, one would think that this was a result of a unified government, much like what existed during the Era of Good Feelings.
Polk’s presidency, however, existed in the midst of the Second Party Era, highlighted by his political party — the Democrats — and the Whigs, which emerged as vehement opponents to everything the Democrats stood for. The Election of 1844 was also the closest election in terms of the popular vote up until that point in the young republic’s history. Polk only defeated Henry Clay, his Whig challenger, by 1.4%.
Polk set four clearly defined goals for his administration:
- Acquire the Oregon Territory
- Acquire California from Mexico
- Reestablish the Independent Treasury System
- Reduce tariffs
Both Great Britain and the United States laid claim to the Oregon Territory (claims by Native Americans, as often was the case, were unfortunately not taken into consideration). Since 1818, a treaty between the two nations allowed for joint occupation, but the expansionist spirit brought upon this era by Manifest Destiny — the belief that the United States’ expansion from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans was both justifiable and inevitable — made many Americans believe that Oregon belonged to their country. As a result, Polk provided a Congress-approved notification to Great Britain that the United States intended to terminate its joint occupation. Polk knew that Great Britain, in the midst of their Industrial Revolution and whose open trade with many global markets was of grave importance, would force them to negotiate. Polk’s aggressive tactics worried many, but they gained concessions from Great Britain that a more conciliatory president may not have.
John Tyler, Polk’s predecessor, accomplished very little in office given the lack of support he had from either major political party. One success in a very small sample size was the Annexation of Texas. The territory had won its independence from Mexico and sought addition to the United States, but it hadn’t been finalized during Tyler’s presidency. Polk decided to continue pursuing it. In December of his first year in office, he signed the resolution that admitted Texas as the 28th state. Mexico broke off relations with Texas, and an inevitable war followed the next year.
The ensuing war resulted in a victory for James Polk and the American army. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo officially brought the war to an end, and at a hefty price for the Mexican government. As a result of their loss, Mexico parted with a huge chunk of their northern territories to the west of Texas. The United States added lands that would encompass the modern US states of New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and California to go along with the now annexed State of Texas.
In his short four years in office, the young President managed to add an extra one-third of land to the American territory, and the goal of those who subscribed to Manifest Destiny had finally been realized. The United States now indeed existed “from sea to shining sea.”
James Polk’s domestic agenda was also successfully completed. Though an opponent of the National Bank — much like the Democratic standard-bearer, Andrew Jackson — Polk took the position of Martin Van Buren. In his inaugural address, he called upon Congress to re-establish the Independent Treasury System under which government funds were held in the Treasury and not in a bank or other financial institution. The Democratic majority in Congress secured this initiative without relying on a single Whig vote, and Polk signed the Independent Treasury System into existence in 1846. Additionally, Polk was able to sign the Walker Tariff, which he lobbied for, into law; this last initiative — lowering the tariff — successfully completed the final goal of Polk’s agenda when he came into office. The Walker Tariff also led to greater Anglo-American trade when it coincided with Great Britain’s repeal of the Corn Laws.
All this was completed in one term, which fulfilled yet another one of James Polk’s campaign promises — to serve only one term. And that’s the key.
Goal-setting is not enough if it those goals are not tied to a deadline.
Polk set out to accomplish those four goals in four years. What date can you set for yours?