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Riding the Tiger > Category: James K. Polk

Riding The Tiger

“I discovered that being a President is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed.” Harry S. Truman

Friday Feature: James K. Polk Riding a (Sickly) Tiger

James K. Polk, image is United States public domain.

An individual's personality and past experiences contribute in a significant way to their approach of public office. (And in the case of the presidency, it's a very public office.) For today's Friday Feature, here's an excerpt from the American President essay about James K. Polk.

The eldest of ten children, James K. Polk lived in a tidy and well-organized household supervised by a stern mother, Jane Knox Polk, who believed in raising her children according to the strict Presbyterian "gospel of duty." But he was not a healthy child. The trip west had taken its toll on him, and James suffered most of his youth from one sickness or another, especially gallstones. This, along with his staunch Calvinist upbringing and education in Presbyterian schools, accounts for James's determined and even unhealthy work ethic. He seemed to work and study as hard as possible to make up for his real or imagined physical defects.

Click through to read more from American President.

1845: The First Dark Horse Inaugural

Scan of a page from the Illustrated London News, v. 6, April 19, 1845.

Scan of a page from the Illustrated London News, v. 6, April 19, 1845, with the first newspaper illustrations of an American presidential inauguration this being for James K. Polk on March 4, 1845. Courtesy of Library of Congress. PD.

Each week leading up to President Obama’s second inauguration, which will take place on January 21, 2013, RTT is featuring an inaugural address by a president from the Miller Center’s archives.

In December, President Obama threatened to use his Inaugural Address to appeal to public opinion and blame Republicans if there was no deal over the nation’s austerity crisis before New Year’s. Now that some compromise has been reached, the fiscal cliff may not dominate the address on January 21. However, given that the next round of negotiations on the nation’s debt and taxation is now less than two months away, the President will certainly use the Inaugural to once again appeal to the public and lay out his policy agenda. Tariffs, taxes and banking were also the subjects of the Inaugural Address of one of the most significant, if little known presidents of the 19th century.

Not many Americans know James Knox Polk, but they should. He was a rather consequential president and an astute political leader who fought the Mexican War; expanded the Union to the Southwest and West; and solidified national economic policy. Polk was the first dark horse candidate ever to be nominated by a major political party and elected to the presidency. His candidacy was made possible after Martin van Buren committed political suicide by opposing the annexation of Texas. Polk beat Henry Clay by the closest margin in history —1,338,464 popular votes to Clay's 1,300,097—a difference of 38,367 votes. Even though Clay won five slave states, including Polk’s home state of Tennessee and North Carolina, Polk netted 170 electoral votes to Clay's 105. As president, Polk's agenda was driven by four of the most contentious issues of the Jacksonian Era: territorial expansion, slavery, banking, and the tariff. Polk assumed the presidency with a focused political agenda.

At his Inauguration on March 4, 1845, Polk spoke at length about his political agenda and the convictions of his positions. Polk promised to administer the government in the true spirit of the Constitution and promised not to assume any powers not expressed or implied in the document:

The government of the United States is one of delegated and limited powers, and it is by a strict adherence to the clearly granted powers and by abstaining from the exercise of doubtful or unauthorized implied powers that we have the only sure guaranty against the recurrence of those unfortunate collisions between the federal and state authorities which have occasionally so much disturbed the harmony of our system and even threatened the perpetuity of our glorious Union.