The President Who Worked Himself to Death

March 29, 2017

Of all the one-term presidents our country has had, our 11th president probably has the bragging rights of getting the most accomplished in a single term. Dubbed our first “Dark Horse” president, James Polk was also considered the last strong president before Abraham Lincoln.

This guy was the epitome of a workaholic. In fact, historians claim that he was the hardest working president our country has ever seen. No golf trips for this guy. He basically thought that leisure was a sin for any serious president. He was all about putting in the long hours and as a micro-manager, he personally oversaw several federal agencies himself.

To take that workaholic thing to an even deeper level, he had gas lights installed at the White House just so that he could work through the night, which he did often.

That’s our 11th president, James Polk, in a nutshell. He’s our president of the week. Keep reading to find out how this guy is still making the news, even just this week.

President Polk

The Facts:

As our 11th President, James Knox Polk served from 1845-49. He promised the American people he would only serve one term. And boy did he make the most of that one term!

The main goal of President James K. Polk’s presidency was to fulfill America’s “Manifest Destiny,” which was basically a 19th Century belief that Americans were destined to spread across the continent of North America–from “sea to shining sea.”

He had four main objectives during his single term (a self-imposed single-term, I might add) in office: 1) To set up an independent Treasury, 2) To lower tariffs on imports, 3) To settle the dispute with the British over the borders of the Oregon Territory and 4) To claim California.

He accomplished all of these things (and more). He played an awesome hand against Congress, pressuring them to both lower the federal tariffs and form an independent treasury. Check one and two off his list.

The other two goals required a bit more work. Maybe a war. The Mexican-American War started when Polk offered to buy California (which included territory that later formed several other states, too) from Mexico for $20 million.

Mexico said no, thanks. So Polk did what he had to do to get what he wanted. He sent General Zachary Taylor (our next president) into Texas territory, which was still disputed at the time, and the Mexicans retaliated.

As you know, they were beat. Badly. By 1848, Mexico agreed to sell us territory that included what is now California, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming. That’s a lot of space. Oh, and by that time Texas had been annexed by a bill in Congress, so it was now ours too! From sea to shining sea, indeed.

Pre-Polk US

The United States when Polk took office

Post-Polk U.S.

The United States after Polk left office

Though his personality suggested otherwise, James K, Polk was also the most accessible of our presidents. The Marine Corp band played on the South Lawn of the White House every week and was open to the public. Also open to the public were the doors to the White House. Polk held “visiting hours” of sorts twice a week. All that was required for entry was to knock at the door, present your card, and wait your turn. Wouldn’t it be awesome if presidents still did that? Obviously, security wasn’t as huge a concern back then.

Political Party

DemocratJames and Sarah Polk

First Lady

Sarah Childress Polk. Sadly, the two had no children. President Polk was said to have had surgery in his earlier years to remove urinary stones and historians believe it made him sterile. However, Sarah, played a huge role in her husband’s success. She was highly educated and was said to have been one of his best advisers, writing speeches for him, helping with his campaign and even his policies as an elected official.

Sarah was a strict Presbyterian and refused to serve alcohol (other than wine which she and her husband did not usually drink) at the White House. She also banned music and dancing at the White House during her tenure and was said to prohibit any official business on Sundays.

She, more than any other First Lady at the time, was more involved in her husband’s political business than was typical. She served as his personal secretary, reading all his correspondence and news articles relating to him and showing him only what she thought was important. A lot of Cabinet members resented her because she was the person they had to go through to get to the president and she carefully guarded him (which he didn’t mind–he preferred as little interaction with the public as possible).

Vice President

George M. Dallas (who the city of Dallas, Texas was believed to be named after).

Why President Polk is Cool

President Polk

Not only did he serve as president, but he was also Speaker of the House. He won his seat in Congress when he was only 29-years-old. In his first major speech in Congress, he said the Electoral College should be abolished and the presidency should be won by popular vote only. You may know a few people who still like that idea.

Working hard for the American people was the most important thing to him and he resented distractions. He once said, “No president who performs his duty faithfully and conscientiously can have any leisure.” I wonder how presidents today would feel about that.

A story goes that he hated anything that took him from his official duties. At one time, a juggler was invited to the White House. President Polk was pulled from a meeting and politely sat for the show but later wrote that the entire time he thought it wasteful and the only thing he could think about was the issue with Oregon.

He died a mere three months after leaving office. It was cholera that killed him but many historians believe he so overworked himself as president that it left him exhausted and weakened and therefore unable to withstand the disease.

While he was in office he signed a bill overseeing the organization of the Smithsonian Institution. The Smithsonian is the world’s largest museum, education, and research complex (19 total museums, plus a zoo). It’s remarkable.

The Smithsonian holds so many memories for me. If you haven’t been, you must go! It is the perfect place to take kids. There are so many museums as part of the Smithsonian that there is something for everyone and no one will ever get bored. Tired, maybe, because there is literally so much to see, but not bored. Ever. There is a National Museum of American History that is mind blowing–it’s the place you’ve heard of that has Dorothy’s ruby red slippers. There’s an Air and Space Museum that has real space shuttles that were flown on the Apollo Missions. There are several art museums and there’s also the Museum of Natural History (that houses the Hope Diamond) and even a zoo that is part of the Smithsonian.

In the News Today

James Polk home

President James Polk’s home in Columbia, Tennessee.

Polk also served as Governor of Tennessee and his former home in Columbia, Tennessee has been in the news recently. In Polk’s will, he requested to be buried at his home. However, since he died of cholera, there was a law in place that said he had to immediately be buried a certain number of miles outside town at what is now the Nashville City Cemetery. A year or so later, at his wife’s request, he was reburied back at his home. However, the home was later sold and so his body was dug up and reburied at the Tennessee Capitol grounds (the only president to be buried at a state capitol) so that visitors would be able to pay respect to him. The Tennessee senate just this week passed a resolution allowing his body to be reburied back at his home in Columbia.

Talk about not resting in peace! Polk ancestors are not happy about it. They think it’s just a ploy to make money off of tourists.

President Polk statue

Brittany’s oldest with the President Polk statue in downtown Rapid City.

For Kids

Discuss with your kids how the shape and size of the United States didn’t always look like it does today. Where do you live? Do you know when your state was founded?

The U.S. started with the original 13 colonies that literally just stretched down the entire East Coast of the U.S. One by one (or sometimes several at once, as was the case with President Polk), presidents slowly acquired more territory. For example, Thomas Jefferson issued the Louisiana Purchase which expanded the U.S. to the south, President Monroe acquired Florida from the Spanish, John Tyler negotiated with the British for Maine, and James Polk acquired the territory that mostly makes up the lower 48 as we know it today.

In the next few weeks, we’ll post more about Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson, and William McKinley who acquired the remaining states and territories, including Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico.

Also, need a vacation idea? Take your kids to Washington, D.C. and visit the Smithsonian museums. Seriously, just do it! Talk to them about how it was started and that President Polk is the one that signed the organization of it into law.

Sources: The story about the juggler came here. Sarah Childress’ info came here. I have this really awesome book I love that I bought in the Mount Rushmore gift shop. It’s a small, easy to read book aptly titled The Presidents of the United States of America. Find it here. It probably has the most thorough, in-depth summary of each president all neatly packaged into a single page for each. I love it!

Also, like I’ve mentioned before, the History Channel has an amazing documentary on the lives of each of our presidents. I’ve been watching it every single week. It is seriously fascinating. You can find it here. It’s a great watch for younger kids and especially any older kids who are learning about our American history. They also have a more condensed and less expensive version that you can find here. Both versions are great because they both have different information about each president.

Author: Brittany

Former White House and Capitol Hill staffer, wife, and mom.

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