It might have happened on the moon, it seems so long ago, that presidential candidates were chosen at their party’s quadrennial conventions, and not, as is the present custom, denoted a front-runner on Inauguration Day, settled upon by Super Tuesday, and merely inducted, during a televised prime-time balloon drop, on the last day of an ignored in-gathering of party stalwarts. It was not always thus, however. Once candidates slugged it out, ballot after ballot, on the convention floor – and who remained standing was never foreordained. James Knox Polk was one such combatant. Yet not only did he not seek the nomination but when chosen, he promised to serve only a single term. Why? The presidency, he believed, was above personal ambition…
“A dark horse which had never been thought of… rushed past the grandstand in sweeping triumph.” -Benjamin Disraeli, The Young Duke (1831)
Polk’s astonishing capture of the Democratic nomination, on the ninth ballot was, he says here, both a surprise and a compromise. President Van Buren, who was expected to nab the nomination, was against the annexation of Texas; Cass, his challenger, was for it: the convention called for a two-thirds vote, rather than a simple majority – and so, on the third day of the Convention, everyone’s choice for the second spot on the ticket, Polk, catapulted to the top. Here the man of the hour tells the tale, adding a thought which, to modern ears, almost shocks: the office of President, Polk insists, is so important, that it “should neither be sought nor declined.”
“You are right in supposing that neither my friends nor myself anticipated a nomination for the Presidency. It has been the result of mutual concession on the part of the friends of other gentlemen who were looked to for that high station, and was no doubt effected with a view to restore harmony to the party. As you remark, it has been truly said that the office of President was one which should neither be sought nor declined.”
If not seeking the presidency was considered, in 1844, a proper sentiment, what Polk did afterward set protocol on its head: he declared, shortly after receiving word of his nomination on June 6th, that if elected, he would not be a candidate for re-election. His, he promised, would be a one-term presidency. This was not an altruistic pledge, however, but a savvy political calculation. It would, for starters, unite those “other gentlemen who were looked to for that high station” – Van Buren, Cass and Calhoun: all of whom wanted the presidency considerably more than Polk – to treat a Polk presidency as a mere detour and not a dead-end to their ambitions for 1848. And then too, it would rob Polk’s opponent, the Whig Henry Clay, of a potent anti-Jacksonian position: that limited government demanded a one-term presidency.
Ultimately, a mere 38,000 votes separated Polk from Clay on Election Day, and the “Dark Horse”, surprisingly, became the 11th president. Believing, perhaps uniquely, that a president who performed his duty faithfully could not have any leisure, he served some 1424 days in office and spent all but 42 of them at his desk. Halfway through his presidency, he wrote of his “constant confinement” in the White House, and that a “respite” from his “public labors and cares” would be proper, if not necessary.
Working seven days a week at his desk, however, literally changed the country. Annexing Texas, adding Oregon, and winning California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and part of Colorado in a war with Mexico, the United States was a third larger by the time he left office – as promised, after a single term – and stretched from sea to sea. But this monumental effort as good as killed him: Polk died of exhaustion and ill-health just twelve weeks after leaving the presidency. In one of his last letters, he spoke as a “private citizen” finally able, he declared, to enjoy a much-needed repose; he’d been seriously ill, but now, he claimed, his health was entirely restored.
Polk died a month later, quietly, without struggle. He was 53, and exhausted.
JAMES KNOX POLK. 1795 – 1849. The 11th President of the United States.
Autograph Letter Signed, 1 page, quarto, Columbia, Tennessee, June 8, 1844. To Henry Horn in Philadelphia.
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