11. James Knox Polk

Log Cabin Democrats (July 13, 2011)

Before there was a California, there was simply Manifest Destiny: the mysterious force that on a winter's night in 1795 compelled Samuel Polk to plow his wife like a cotton field. And so God's plan for Disney on both coasts was set in motion. Nine months later in Mecklenburg County, N.C., future president James K. Polk sprang from his mother's loins. A lot of people sprang from her loins over the years -- James was the first of 10 -- and they did so in cabins that looked something like this:

That's not the actual birth cabin (whose manifest destiny Was rotting to oblivion), but it is a nice, upper-middle-class dwelling for the time and region. Samuel had some land, some slaves, and one of the only cotton gins in the neighborhood; that level of prosperity was enough to get you a two-room log hut, a barn and a separate log kitchen. Times have changed, and (going by the Motel 6 I stayed in the night before) today that would qualify only as a middle-class dwelling for the Charlotte region.

For a nice chunk of the 20th century, the only thing marking the birth site was this fine ... uh, thing ... from the Daughters of the American Revolution.

But today there's a visitors center, and some period structures, and a demonstration garden. There's a nice little cemetery where Polk's grandmother happens to be resting. And there's a mission to let you know what life was like for the future president. For young James, there was character-building farm work, and (negative) character-building exposure to slavery, and your standard home schooling. But were there any telling episodes which chiseled the man who would besmite Mexico and spread our great land from sea to shining sea? Well, the story goes that one day James plowed a field, but stopped short of a nearby stream. "Father, it is too difficult to go all the way to the water's edge," he said. And so Samuel horsewhipped him and rubbed his face on the cotton gin. "DO NOT STOP UNTIL YOU GET TO THE WATER!" he screamed.

Which is to say, I made that up and there are no stories. The Polks pulled up stakes and headed off to Tennessee when James was 10. James came back to attend UNC, and he was the starting point guard for the 1817 ACC championship team. But his fortunes are more closely tied to the Volunteer State, where he became a protege of its greatest political hero -- who was also from North Carolina. Maybe.

Once again it's the DAR to the rescue, this time by marking the log cabin site of Andrew Jackson's 1767 birth, about a 20-minute drive to the south. You'll be interested to know that Andrew Jackson was born in the middle of a gravel ring at the end of a gravel road. You can only reach the circle -- about a quarter mile inside the N.C. state line -- from a South Carolina road, and there are no signs anywhere indicating its location. You have to know it's there, and it really helps if you have a satellite picture of the region. If you go there past 9 p.m. a moonshiner will shoot you. The reason for this obscurity, you'll be interested to know, is that Andrew Jackson wasn't born in North Carolina. Maybe.

That's the very helpful DAR marker indicating the log cabin site of Andrew Jackson's birth, about another 2 minutes to the south. In South Carolina. The story goes that a very pregnant and recently widowed Elizabeth Jackson was wandering the countryside like Mary, looking for a place to drop her miracle baby. She went into labor at an relative's house, but which relative isn't exactly carved in the historical record. One uncle lived in present-day North Carolina, another lived nearby in South Carolina. The states have been politely disputing each other's claims ever since.

South Carolina is winning, because Andrew Jackson State Park at least has paved roads leading up to its DAR marker. And beyond that, there's a small museum on Jackson's childhood, an equestrian statue of young AJ and some recreations of period-appropriate structures (a schoolhouse and a meeting hall). But again, what about the formative episodes of rambunctious youth?

Jackson's life was nothing BUT formative episodes. The Waxhaws region (stretching over both states) was like a colonial Hazzard County, stocked with friendly relatives and troubling authority figures. During the Revolution, the British came through and tore stuff up; Jackson and his brother were captured when running errands for local militia. Jackson suffered a saber scar to the face and his brother died of smallpox contracted while a prisoner. His mother died a short time later working as a nurse for wounded soldiers. And somewhere in there I bet he got to second base while pressing some backwoods babe up against a pine tree. The point is, his time in the Waxhaws toughened him up -- to the point where he finally was able to get the hell out and go to Tennessee.

The rest is history: he becomes a military legend and political champion of the earthy backwoods people that made America great. In a true evolution of American democracy, Jackson was our first "common" president, and he learned to be so common in the Waxhaws.

I learned alot in the Waxhaws too. Chiefly, that the DAR likes to be thorough and once had a huge budget for giant stone markers.

Polk ancestral home (August 23, 2007)

For anyone who thinks their job is killing them, here's James Knox Polk before and after his four-year term:

He went into the White House as the youngest president ever (49), and he left with a mullet. He died 103 days after leaving office, having worked himself to death.

But the man got results! The folks at the Polk ancestral home bill Jimmy the K as the only president to fulfill all his campaign promises:

1) Annexation of Texas, 2) Acquisition of the Oregon Territory, 3) Never faking the funk on a nasty dunk, 4) Capturing California as a homeland for the nation's beautiful people.

He doubled the size of the country under the banner of Manifest Destiny, the charming 19th century belief that God really wanted the United States to cover all of North America. Why would God want this? The same reason that he hated Indian tribes: he's arbitrary. No one campaigns on platforms this enjoyable anymore, and that is why the present is boring.

Polk was the oldest of 10 children of North Carolina farmer/surveyor. Dad moved the clan to Tennessee when James was 10. He was a sickly kid -- he had bad problems with urinary stones until the age of 17, when they were removed by a Kentucky surgeon during a procedure that involved no anesthesia -- and so he didn't do much farming, and ends up going the bookish route. He went to UNC for a few years, read law in Nashville and then became a lawyer in Columbia, where his family had settled.

At 27 he gets elected to the Tennessee Legislature, then at 29 he bounces over to the U.S. House of Representatives. After 14 years there (including 4 as Speaker -- he's the only Speaker who became President) he goes home, gets elected governor for a term, and then proceeds to lose that job to a Whig. But he stays tight with fellow Tennessean and Democrat Andrew Jackson, who backdoors him into the presidential nomination at the 1844 convention, even though Polk had been out of office for a few years. Next thing you know, he's President, and after four years, America is twice as big.

And it's all thanks to urinary stones. Sort of.

The ancestral home isn't really Polk's house as much as the place he would have crashed when he was home on Spring Break (Florida wasn't a state back then). But it's the only surviving Polk residence other than the White House, so it gets to be the museum. In lieu of having an actual Polk house, they filled the ancestral home with all of his surviving furniture, plus there's a cute museum in the house next door which has some personal effects. It's all a touch underwhelming for a guy who was probably in the presidential top 10 as far as historical importance, but it ain't bad for what it is. If you're ever in Columbia ... uh, why are you in Columbia, exactly?

  • Though he came from a huge family, Polk never had kids, possibly as a side-effect of his surgery. But he named his urinary stones Ephraim and Philip, and appointed them assistant secretaries of State.
  • The first American postage stamps were issued under Polk. After a public vote, it was decided to go with the "young" Ben Franklin stamp, instead of the "fat syphilitic" Franklin design.
  • Referred to as the first "dark horse" president, given his relatively low national profile. Whigs used the campaign slogan "Who is James K. Polk?" Democrats responded with "He's the guy bending Henry Clay over the front of his carriage."
  • Polk's vice president was George Dallas of Pennsylvania. He was instrumental in arranging the annexation of Texas, and the city of Dallas is named after the Philadelphian. So SUCK ON THAT, COWBOYS FANS!
  • When negotiations to buy California broke down, Polk started the Mexcian-American war. After beating the Mexicans, the U.S. still agreed to pay $15,000,000 for the territory. But instead of investing, Mexico just blew the money on votive candles.
  • For securing the Oregon Territory from the British, Polk was named High Times' Man of the Millennium.
  • Polk was a Freemason and was present at the Masonic cornerstone ceremony that started the Washington Monument in 1848. And that's how we know that the Monument is actually an antenna to communicate with the alien overlords who actually run the government. Duh.
  • Originially became interested in Manifest Destiny as a means to expand his deck West, into his neighbor's yard.

Big Game James

James Polk spent his presidency in service to God's will, helping the nation realize its manifest destiny of owning Texas and California. God had a different destiny in mind for Polk. Even though Polk had rendered such faithful service to both America and the lord, he died in 1849.

God can be such an ingrate. Polk didn't even make it four months after leaving the White House; he was felled by cholera, which a polite way of saying that diarrhea killed him. The man who led our glorious whupping of Mexico died of Montezuma's revenge. God can also be a morbidly poetic jerk.

At least Polk got to die at home. He had purchased the Nashville residence of Felix Grundy, one of his political mentors (and Andrew Jackson's attorney general). He renamed it "Polk Place" -- not to be confused with the popular 1850s Nashville gentleman's club of the same name. Leaving D.C. in March, he got to Tennessee in April, which gave him two great months of intestinal distress in his freshly decorated mansion. Sarah Polk got to enjoy the place a little bit longer; she died in 1891 at age 87.

You can't see Polk Place, except in old photographs; it was demolished before the dawn of the 20th century. They did relocate its most endearing feature, however: As you can clearly see in old photos, Polk's grave was on the front yard. Nothing says "welcome, visitors" quite like putting your dead husband out by the curb.

Polk's body therefore went on a bit of a journey long after Polk had ended his personal voyage. He was moved from his original grave to Polk Place about a year after his death, and in 1893 he was moved again -- to the grounds of the Tennessee State Capitol, right in the middle of downtown Nashville.

That's where you can visit him today. Coming straight from the Lincoln Birthplace, I tore down the highway to the heart of Tennessee, about two hours away. I haven't been to the former site of Polk Place, but I have to think the capitol is an upgrade, in terms of a final resting place. Nashville's version of Capitol Hill is ridiculously steep, with the actual Capitol facing out on a wonderful view of the less-economically-viable portions of the city. It is an impressive building, and if you have to be dead, you might as well be dead in a very classy location. I had to do a lap around the building to find Polk, but along the way I got to see statues of Tennessee's other presidents, Andrew Jackson and Andrew Johnson. Jackson's is a nice equestrian sculpture, whereas Johnson is simply standing on a podium, low enough to the ground that you can see how his face has been shellacked by birds (who, from the looks of it, also had cholera).

The monument to James and Sarah is a simple stone canopy covering a squat rectangular column; it has a little narrative engraved on it to tell you who you're looking at. There are flowers planted in a ring around the base. There are fancier presidential graves, but at the end of the day Polk wasn't a fancy guy. And really, there aren't many other locations where you can experience Polk. His birthplace in North Carolina is just a replia cabin, and he barely lived at the Polk "ancestral home" in Columbia, Tenn. His grave is the best of the lot. It remains his only legacy.

Well, that and Texas, all the southwestern states, California, and the Pacific Northwest. Just those few things.

One man's quest to be the humblest person alive
Copyright 2013, Chris White