Polk - What a Horrible President!

In the grand catalog of 19th century America, there are few villains so worthy of a Libertarian’s scorn, as James K Polk.

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In the grand catalog of 19th century America, there are few villains so worthy of a Libertarian’s scorn, as James K Polk. The Jacksonian period was one flush with eager upstarts, middling men who hit it big with cunning and peculiar talents. Polk, too, was one of these eager, young, upstart Americans.

Frances Whipple, ed. Liberty Chimes. Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society of Providence. 1845.

May, Robert. Manifest Destiny’s Underworld: Filibustering in Antebellum America. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. 2002.

Morrison, Michael. Slavery and the American West: The Eclipse of Manifest Destiny and the Coming of the Civil War. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. 1997.

Sellers, Charles. James K. Polk, Jacksonian: 1795-1845. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 1957.

    James K. Polk, Continentalist: 1843-1846. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 1966.

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00:09 Anthony Comegna: In the grand catalog of 19th century America, there are few villains so worthy of a Libertarian’s scorn, as James K Polk. The Jacksonian period was one flush with eager upstarts, middling men who hit it big with cunning and peculiar talents. These new men of politics do not necessarily dominate our history books, but they were some of the eras most important figures. If you’ve done reading in the period, you probably know many of them: Martin Van Buren, Samuel Tilden, Isaac Hill, Amos Kendall, Levi Woodbury, Frank Blair, Daniel Webster, Horace Greeley, and of course, Jackson and Lincoln, among many others. As one historian described this generation or two, “They were little men, highly intelligent, crafty, insecure about their place in society, eager to make money, and above all, inordinately ambitious.”

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01:05 Anthony Comegna: Today, we look at one of the worst presidents we have ever had, and one of the worst things to ever happen to a Libertarian movement. James K Polk, the man who made America into a continental empire.

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01:26 Anthony Comegna: Welcome to Liberty Chronicles, a project of libertarianism.org. I’m Anthony Comegna.

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01:46 Anthony Comegna: Polk, too, was one of these eager, young, upstart Americans. His family had been in America since the 1600s, moving by the generation to different parts along the frontier. James Knox was born on November 2nd, 1795, in a small cabin in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. 20 years earlier, his father had a hand in the country’s first Declaration of Independence from Great Britain. And by James’ birth, the family was firmly Republican. He was a sickly youth suffering from kidney stones and inclined to education. Family connections helped him gain admission to the University of North Carolina, and Polk diligently joined the right social circles, to advance his career in law and politics.

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02:30 Anthony Comegna: Practicing law, he gained enough wealth to subsidize a political career. He ran for the state house in Tennessee in 1823 and won. From there, he became a staunch Jackson man, supporting the general from 1824, right the way through to his death, during Polk’s own presidency. He won a seat in the US Congress, just two years later, at only 29 years old. His very first speech in Washington was a protest against John Quincy Adams’ and Henry Clay’s supposed corrupt bargain, to steal the election from Jackson. Polk wanted to abolish the electoral college and have a national popular vote for president. He gained national prominence as Chairman of the House, Ways and Means Committee during the Bank War, as a Jacksonian enforcer.

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03:17 Anthony Comegna: During the years of New York’s Locofoco Party, that radical early Libertarian movement we’ve been covering in such great detail, Polk gained a reputation as a strong supporter of their equal rights agenda. He was a die-hard free trader, a small government liberal, and a Democrat with contempt for European aristocracies. He was Speaker of the House from 1835 to ‘39, the very years when Locofocos had the most direct influence on legislation in Congress. It was he who helped turn much of their radicalism, from hopeful visions into real policy. The Independent Treasury might have been William Gouge and William Leggett’s idea, but it was Polk that actually put it in operation. He regularly invoked the language of equal rights, courting the Locofoco vote. And during his successful bids for governor in Tennessee, his supporters worried that, without him in office, Whigs would rid Tennessee of every vestige of Locofocoism.

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04:16 Anthony Comegna: Gansevoort Melville, Herman Melville’s brother, called Polk ‘Young Hickory,’ honoring him as Andrew Jackson’s most direct political descendant. During the early 1840s, Polk became a darling among nationalist Democrats across the country, but especially those involved in the Young America cultural movement, the Rhode Island Dorr War, conflicts on the Western borders, and partisans hoping for an easy window into the spoils of patronage.

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04:44 Anthony Comegna: Approaching the election of 1844, Democratic politics was a mess of competing factions. To most, Martin Van Buren was still the natural leader. He was the former President, after all, and the most prominent supporter of Locofoco policies to boot. He was the architect of the Second Party System, and no one had a better organization of party bosses, mid-level faction wranglers, and low-level political informants at his disposal. In one famous example, Fernando Wood, the future wartime mayor of New York City, acted as a double agent. Posing as a supporter of Secretary of State John C Calhoun’s, Wood informed on the Calhoun people to the Van Buren people. Van Buren never trusted him, but did use his information.

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05:30 Anthony Comegna: Then there was Levi Slamm, that extremely problematic early Locofoco, who by 1844, had been operating some of the city’s most popular radical papers for many years. Historian Charles Sellers called Slamm, “The venal publisher of a popular Van Buren paper,” and notes, “Slamm was a Van Buren man, only in public.” In private, he and several other key Locofocos in the city, formed a secret Calhoun Committee, and jockeyed back and forth, based on which faction paid the most.

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06:01 Anthony Comegna: Northern Democrats increasingly clamored for expansion, making great new additions to our great new Republic. At campaign clambakes in New England, speakers and crowds whipped each other into frenzied visions of American Manifest Destiny, and radical Libertarian reform at home. In cities like New York, old Locofocos wanted the chance to, both put their ideas back into the White House, and gain factional dominance over conservative Democrats in their state. In politics, every struggle for ideas is tarnished and warped by the constant struggle for actual power.

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06:40 Anthony Comegna: On their own desperate paths to further influence, outgoing President John Tyler and his Secretary Calhoun submitted an Annexation Treaty to Congress in March, sparking a furious flurry of debates nationwide. Hoping to depoliticize the whole issue, Van Buren, the presumptive Democratic nominee, and his Whig counterpart, Henry Clay, did something unprecedented. They coordinated together to stake out the same anti-Texas position. On the same day, April 27th, 1844, both candidates published letters arguing that no treaty should be signed without clear support from both sections, North and South. Most importantly, they argued, Texas would come into the Union, along with a war on Mexico, and wars are neither good for business, nor politics, as usual. And these men invented politics, as usual.

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07:37 Anthony Comegna: Clay’s letters set him up well, as the sole standard bearer for Whigs, but Van Buren was not so lucky. Too many Democrats now had expansionist dreams of their own. It was not just Southerners looking for fresh soils to work their slaves. Folks like Slamm were hungrily eyeing the Oregon Territory, and they believed that a little war with Mexico or Britain was worth it, for a chance to expand the great zone of American Republicanism. In the days after Van Buren’s anti-Texas Hammett letter, Slamm danced carefully around his factions. He called the letter, “One of the most masterly productions of that eminent man,” and carefully noted to his audience that, “Though Van Buren was clearly saying, ‘No,’ to Texas, if for whatever reason Mexico was unable to fight a war over it, then Van Buren’s mind would change.” “In fact,” he said, “Slavery in Texas would actually help the abolitionist cause.” Slamm tried to reassure his more radical Locofoco audience that, “As Easterners sold their slaves further West, black people would disappear from the East, and slavery along with them. Eventually, they would all filter down to the jungles of Central and South America.” And presumably, the Americans Slamm really cared about, would finally be free from all those black people.

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08:57 Anthony Comegna: Day by day, as the convention got closer, Van Buren got less popular, less acceptable to Southern delegates, and more people, including Levi Slamm, cast about for a compromised candidate, someone who would bring the economic Locofocoism of a Van Buren, but also the manly nationalism of an Andrew Jackson.

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09:19 Anthony Comegna: Meanwhile, Young Hickory, James Polk, was doing everything right. He laid low, dutifully supported Van Buren, right the way through balloting, and then turned on a dime to self-service. Once it was clear, Van Buren could not secure the nomination. As the convention opened, everyone suspicious of Van Buren had a second choice, right there in mind, and now that the field was open, Polk was their man. Key figures from both the New York Locofoco movement and the Rhode Island Dorr War abandoned Van Buren, to elevate the former Speaker of the House as the new party leader. Polk boosters on the convention floor called him, “The pure, whole hog Locofoco Democrat, who goes against the Bank of the United States and all corrupting monopolies.” Slamm’s Daily Plebeian claimed, “Polk’s nomination was a glorious result.” And on the strength of New York Locofoco votes, he was elected president. A shift of just 5,000 votes, in either New York or Pennsylvania, would have tipped the entire election, may have halted American imperial expansion, and may even have prevented the Civil War. Locofoco votes, that is, early Libertarian votes plagued and poisoned by nationalism, helped build the modern American Empire.

10:46 Anthony Comegna: Between Polk’s election to office and the beginning of the Mexican War, Whigs and abolitionists, like Frances Whipple, our spirit medium from last week, accused radical Democrats of selling out their anti-slavery principles, for the spoils of politics and a few scraps of economic policy. In 1845, Whipple published her collection of essays from anti-slavery writers, “Liberty Chimes,” which included her own scathing critique of Texas annexation and slavery expansion. Taking the voice of Ahmed, a traveler from Muslim-controlled Barbary, Whipple smashed those Northerners who aided and abetted slaveholders, and shamed her country for its duplicity.

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11:31 Speaker 2: Frances Whipple Green, Ahmed’s Letters from “Liberty Chimes,” 1845: “Brother of my soul, thou well rememberest, that from time to time, I have spoken to thee on the subject of Texas, and its annexation to these United states, which measure is now said to be inavertible, and only waits the ratification of the next congress. The stupidity, the stolid indifference of these people, in regard to the subject is really astonishing. One would think it should burn itself into every heart, until the whole man became ignited, as with inconsumable fire. But what do I see? A people professedly Republican, with the most sonorous grandiloquence about freedom on their lips, and the most swelling flourishes of patriotism in all their writings. The one half, or the small majority, urging and carrying forward a measure, which is intended to fasten the curse of slavery. Slavery, too, of the most revolting character upon the land forever. And the other half, or the large minority, without sufficient force to resist the current, which they seem to take for granted. It is impossible to arrest.”

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12:40 Speaker 2: “And this has been the condition of things for months! Impossible! Nought to be considered impossible, while ought remains to be done. Impossible! The word should be made obsolete at such a crisis, and every man should plant upon himself the rights of man, and do battle, therefore, with a firm resolve to conquer or die in the struggle. Thou wilt remember, my friend, that after Mexico had achieved her independence, her first great measure was to manumit her slaves, providing that slavery should cease, and forever, throughout her dominions. But this only inflamed the avarice of the American slaveholders, many of whom had settled in Texas, and a conspiracy was immediately set on foot to rend the colony from the parent country.”

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13:24 Speaker 2: “To this end, seditions were fomented by a band of swindlers and loafers, who had emigrated from the United States, and who were sustained and encouraged by the slave power of the country. These continued to import and retain slaves, contrary to the express laws of the Republic. And by their wild and lawless character, they overawed the old residents, who were living prosperous and happy under the gentle sway of Mexico. Although the Texas Declaration of Independence falsely asserts to the contrary, all religions were tolerated by an act of the legislature. The right of trial by jury, in all cases whatsoever, was secured by law. Schools were established, their lands were given to the people, and they were exempt from taxation for 10 years. The gentlest, the most generous policy ever extended to any body of emigrants, was met with the basest ingratitude.”

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14:16 Speaker 2: “In this way, the revolt commenced, and though this country was, at that time, and has remained since, under bonds of peace and mutual alliance with Mexico, yet in violation of the law of nations, in violation of all good faith, men, money, and arms were publicly levied and transported into Texas to aid the insurgents. They were permitted to pass the borders without check or hindrance, under the weak and silly pretense that they could not be restrained. The cause of Texas was represented as the cause of liberty, and strong appeals to patriotism, in connection with the foulest prejudice and cupidity, were made in her behalf, and published openly in the public journals. The president was known to hold a correspondence with the chief of the conspirators, one of whom, Swartwout, was his very particular friend. An army was raised for the special purpose of convoying a large body of recruits into Mexico, and they had actually received marching orders, but the affair getting abroad, they were retained. An agency was established in New Orleans with full powers to raise and equip a navy, to board supplies to the army, and to accept, and encourage the services of volunteers.”

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15:31 Speaker 2: “At this time, Mexico had a fleet which commanded the Gulf. But within three months, four heavily armed schooners were equipped in full view of the Custom House of New Orleans, and in less than four months, every Mexican cruiser was either destroyed, or driven into port. And this loss of the command of the sea, was the main cause of the defeat of Santa Anna, with which the Texans had nothing to do.”

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15:55 Speaker 2: “At this period, transports filled with armed volunteers were continually leaving New Orleans. Munitions of war were purchased and shipped in the most open manner. And at one time, three transports, and an armed steamboat with 500 volunteers, under the command of General Greene, bidded out and sailed from the levee, which is directly in front of the Custom House, with the sound of drums, and the Texan colors flying. Simultaneously, with these movements, another large army belonging to the United States, was dispatched into Mexico, ostensibly with the very friendly intention of protecting our ally from the Indians on our frontier, but really, to overawe the Mexican, and strengthen the Texan soldiers. In this policy, they fully sustained, always permitting American volunteers to pass into Texas by the hundred, while no Mexican or Native Indian was allowed to approach the Texan army, and this was their neutrality.”

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16:52 Speaker 2: “Surely, the pretext that these facts were unknown to the government, exceeds in audacity the movements themselves, yet no proclamation was issued, and no overt or official act of the executive discountenanced, or in any way, discouraged them. The president not only violated the laws of nations, but his oath of office. And, after all this, in his following message, the chief magistrate spoke not one word of the troubles, but represented all the relations with Mexico, as of the most bright and sunny character.”

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17:28 Speaker 2: “President Jackson says, ‘It is an established principle of the law of nations, that any individual of any nation making war against the citizens of another nation, they being at peace, forfeits his allegiance, and becomes an outlaw and a pirate.’ According to this principle then, the whole array of emigrants and volunteers, with the government at their head, should have been hanged as outlaws and pirates. Tell it not in Algiers, oh, my brother! Publish it not on the hills of Constantine, how this great nation has fallen, how slavery walketh abroad, or sitteth in high places, clothed in purple, while freedom is robed in sackcloth, and bowed down to the dust in sorrow and lamentation. The proud mock her, as they go by, and the great ones of the land rejoice in her tears!”

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18:20 Anthony Comegna: “So there it is,” Whipple said, “This whole Texas thing was cooked up by conspiracies of rowdies and planter’s second sons, aided by power hungry politicians from Jackson, to Tyler, to Polk. And average Americans would have to pay the price, do the dying, the bleeding, and bear the shame of such barbarity.” Whipple’s Muslim protagonist praises Allah, “That the world is not yet overrun by such immoral madness.” I hope the irony is not lost on you today.

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18:52 Speaker 2: “To this alliance with Texas, the whole spirit, and most of the men of the North were entirely opposed, until in the electioneering campaign of 1844, it was made the test question of a party, and the basis of political action. What an array of facts is here. The Americans invading the territory of Mexico, with whom they were at peace, and taking possession of the country, without the consent and against the wishes of a majority, even of the people of Texas. They have overthrown the laws and usurped the dominion of a friendly power. And now, a majority of the people at home sustain them in the wrong. What a record for history. Is there no true blood in your veins, that ye blush not? Oh, ye degenerate sons of noble fathers. Are these people so lifted up, so swelled out with a mighty pride, that they really have no regard to the opinion of the world? No regard, even to the laws which govern the world? Are they so blinded by self-conceit, that they cannot perceive the ridiculous, the despicable light, in which they appear? Allah is good and I bless thee, oh, my Father, that the star of my nativity rose, not in the United States, but in the States of Barbary.”

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20:11 Speaker 2: “Is this Republic then, to be not only a nation of slave breeders, but must it also become a nursery of robbers and pirates? For what better is he, than a robber and a pirate, who goes forth to spoil his neighbor with no higher motive than the love of gain? Is the public virtue to be increased in this way, or the great heart of the nation to be strengthened? Are the scenes of futile times to be brought up anew, and re-enacted in the heart of this Republic, and in the middle of the 19th century? Again, it will involve the country in war, and war has even now been declared by Mexico. Sneer not, proud American, but rather, remember the Seminole War, where in spite of your bloodhounds, millions of money, and thousands of human lives were wasted, to subjugate a handful of Indians, who have never been subdued, even yet!”

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21:00 Speaker 2: “The true policy of this country is peace. In peace, her resources are to be developed, her character elevated, the basis of her institutions established, and her duties to mankind fulfilled. Could she but perceive the true end of her being, she would read therein a mission to the ages and the nations. She would see herself destined to be the great exponent of human liberty, shewing the absolute value of man, as man demonstrating that the hand-laborer and the king are intrinsically equal, both standing on the same great level platform of humanity. This is her peculiar mission, and for this, the Declaration of Independence is her diploma. But if she is false to her trust, if she becomes corrupt and wantonly presses downward to the gulf of irretrievable ruin, how will the less favored nations taunt her with bitter mockery? ‘Art thou also become weak as we? Art thou become like unto us? How art thou fallen from Heaven, oh, Lucifer, Star of the Morning.’ Salem-alek, thine ever, Ahmed El Korah.”

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22:10 Anthony Comegna: And Whipple was hardly alone in her horror or disgust. In one especially powerful article, ironically titled, “Beauties of Locofocoism,” the Hudson River Chronicle criticized the moral wrongs of imperial conquest, quoting from a Democratic paper, The Journal. The Journal wrote that, “Straight-laced political moralists may prate of the rights of Mexico. They may prate also of the rights of the aboriginal inhabitants of the whole country. Still, our course is onward. Our destiny leads the way. It may be wrong, in a technical sense, for us to acquire Texas. It may wrong for us to lay hold on Oregon, and finally, on California. We may say, ‘We have territory enough now, without wishing to acquire more,’ and we may amuse ourselves in discussing the technical rights of races. Still, we keep moving onward. Our people will not be hedged in.”

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23:11 Anthony Comegna: For the Whig Chronicle, this sort of sentiment was dangerous, and the editor considered it a personal duty to wage a ceaseless warfare against the piratical doctrine of Locofocoism, that our territory can be extended, or our interest advanced by a disregard of moral obligations, and the principles of international law. The insatiable Locofoco spirit for plunder and acquisition, displayed all the way from Canada, and Rhode Island, to Texas, once swept Revolutionary France into the Terror and Napoleonic Empire, that bled Europe for a generation. The editor of the Chronicle begged his readers to seriously consider the fate of a country, that demanded the right of Republican revolutions around the globe at will, without regard to existing and conflicting claims. Levi Slamm, meanwhile, was already working to make sure Polk would follow through on his plans for continental conquest.

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24:13 Speaker 2: Levi Slamm to James K Polk, New York, October 2nd, 1845. “Dear Sir, several of our citizens who contemplate a visit to the country of California, have called upon me within the last few days, to inquire whether our government had established a public or private agency for the protection of such, as may emigrate there. I am unable to give such information, but from the deep interest evinced in this quarter, cannot but impress upon your excellency the importance, unless you have already anticipated it, of such a movement. The importance of that country, in a national point of view, the evident design of British government to get it within its meshes, would seem to require, on the spot, an active, discreet, and intelligent agent, to protect American citizens, and give to our government the earliest information. I doubt not that this suggestion from me is entirely superfluous, but the interest I feel, in any matter involving an extension of the area of freedom, or the curtailment of British power on this continent, is the apology for troubling you. Levi D Slamm.”

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25:25 Anthony Comegna: Poised to seize the rest of North America, a significant cohort of early Libertarians called Locofocos, quickly forgot who they really were and what they really believed. Or maybe they didn’t forget? Maybe the problem of nationalism was there all along, buried deeply in their minds, nestled comfortably next to their faith in democracy and republicanism. The movement’s founder and its purest ideological exponent, William Leggett, was no militant nationalist. But he did believe democracy was the most natural, the most free, the most prosperous and moral kind of government available at the time. And here is the hardest fact of all, for those thinkers and activists who followed him: Democracy can be really godawful and elections like Polk’s are proof positive.

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26:23 Anthony Comegna: Liberty Chronicles is a project of libertarianism.org, is produced by Tess Terrible. If you’ve enjoyed this episode of Liberty Chronicles, please rate, review, and subscribe to us on iTunes. For more information on Liberty Chronicles, visit libertarianism.org.

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