tv The Presidency James K. Polks Politics Times CSPAN August 6, 2019 9:28pm-11:07pm EDT
wherever you are on the go using the free c-span radio app. american history tv continues our feature on the politics and times of president james polk right now with a look at his relationship with previous president martin van buren and his role as a wartime chief executive. this panel was part of a conference at the university of tennessee that marked the completion of a 60 year project to assemble and edit president polk's papers. this is an hour and a half. >> i am john pinheiro and i teach as a history professor. we are going to explore five of the sides of james k polk. i would like to start with our introductions in just a moment. what we will each do is speak for 15 minutes, no more.
maybe a little less would be allowed. and then we might ask questions of each other, a couple questions at the roundtable and then we will open to the audience. we should have substantial time for question and answer at the end. first i would like to introduce mark cheathem who will speak on polk, van buren, and democratic leadership in 1844. doctor cheathem is professor of history at cumberland university and project director of the papers of martin van buren. his most recent book is the coming of democracy, presidential campaigning in the age of jackson. >> thank you john and thank you all for showing up. hopefully no one naps in the post lunch euphoria. thank you to the chief for putting this together. i also want to thank tim howe.
he did some research on the polk van buren correspondence and that was very helpful for this paper. thank you. i also want to lower expectations. this is my first foray into giving my thoughts on a book i am riding on the 1844 election and so there are lots of holes that i am covered as i was riding and i didn't attempt to fill all those holes in so maybe you can help me with that. in any case the 1844 presidential campaign to transition in the democratic party leadership as martin van buren controlled the party with james k polk. they worked together amiably during the parties earlier years and appeared to some to inhabit the ticket of the democratic party in 1844. van buren's unwillingness to agree to the immediate annexation of texas however signaled his demise as the presumptive candidate for the
democratic party. and polk was considered the front-runner for the vice president spot topped the ticket at the convention in baltimore. well van buren supported polk in the campaign is an ability to influence the politics ended their relationship. a little bit of background, they both entered congress in the 1820s and van buren before polk. they seemed to have had a relationship that was based largely on loyalty to jackson and that emerges most significantly correspondence during jackson's second term during the bank for which we heard about and the 1836 campaign. during van buren's presidency polk gave van buren advice on his response to the panic of 1837 and gave van buren advice on indian removal. polk was in favor of it.
in any case as we approach the 1840 election van buren appeared to be the democratic nominee heading into that campaign and polk emerged as a possible vice presidential nominee in the run up to 1840. after polk ran the gubernatorial election in 1839, polk and his allies began to float his name as a possible replacement for richard m johnson who was van buren's sitting vice president. he had some issues in his personal life that led some democrats to cash jen question his place on the campaign ticket. in any case even though the stars seemed to be aligning for polk things fell apart very quickly after the whig national convention. the whigs nominated harrison who was a war of 1812 hero which made johnson's own wartime experience and heroism
in the war of 1812 much more importance for the democrats than polk's experience as speaker of the house and does democratic congressman and tennessee's governor. ultimately the democratic convention decided not to nominate a vice presidential candidate. in 36 there had been a contentious vice presidential contest so they decided to just avoid that. polk eventually withdrew his name. he did campaign for van buren in 1840 across the state. it was seemingly a very effective job. as jackson said the whigs log cabin, cider thwarted his attempts to carry the jacksonian mantle for second term. as van buren looked to run again in 1844 he undertook a journey in the spring of 1842 to several southern and western states including tennessee. he of course spent time with jackson at hermitage and then van buren made himself to columbia to visit with polk
and other democratic allies in lower middle tennessee. while staying with polk, he and his friends expected that van buren would discuss the 44 presidential election and they hoped that perhaps he would ask polk to join him on the ticket. that did not happen. i solemnly assure you polk wrote when corresponding that not a word either verbally or in riding was ever up to this hour passed between us on the subject. nor had he heard of any conversations to that effect having heard elsewhere during the tennessee leg of van buren's trip. ultimately van buren's visit to tennessee hurt both men because it allowed whigs and jealous democrats to clean that the two had orchestrated a political agreement that undercut their commitment to popular convention even though there is no evidence of that. as the calendar turns 1843 it appeared that van buren remains the choice of most democrats in 44 but not all
was well within the democratic party. some democrats blamed their problems on van buren's administration and began to look to more viable options. john c calhoun lingered in the shadows and continue to be a thorn in the side of the party. polk's friend robert armstrong proposed in 43 there may be a clash between the friends that cannot be settled. in a case he told polk your prospect as a compromise is best. the friends of van buren are democrats in with great propriety agree upon you. but unfortunately polk lost the gubernatorial election of 1841 and he lost again in 1843. which you would think would be a bad omen for his vice presidential chances. indeed, some tennessee democrats mean blamed van buren for his loss and began moving.
some democrats also proposed simply replacing van buren with cass and keeping polk on the democratic ticket in 1844. despite the downturn in democratic fortunes in the state of tennessee polk assured van buren he could still count on tennessee's support in 44. although jackson initially wavered in his the port of polk's vice presidential chances by the next month he was back to reassuring van buren that he needed polk to win tennessee. when the tennessee general assembly met later that fall, polk pressured allies to support his vice presidential shot. his strategy was to have tennessee democrats endorse them for the vice presidency but not to issue a ticket. the implication was if van buren wanted to make sure that polk was his running mate. the tennessee democratic convention that met in november 43 -- van buren remained the
front-runner in many democrats minds. two weeks into the new year van buren wrote jackson, the prospects now are that we shall have a very harmonious convention. in respect to the presidential candidates and it is quite certain that the question of the vice presidency will discuss and decide upon in the very best spirit. this should be and i have no doubt we will be satisfied. if van buren looked carefully he would have noticed that the support remained and was growing wider. johnson who was a close friend of polk and a close advisor in 44 told polk "is cause does not seem so flattering is at the commencement. the abolition will injure him. van buren was not an abolitionist and 44. really not an abolitionist
anytime which is not a topic. johnson also noted that tyler and calhoun supported polk to show that van buren i were opposed to texas to oppose his nomination. polk agreed with this opinion that the abolition agitation is now as it had ever been political in its object and design and he regretted southern democrats opposition to van buren's nomination. still his attention early in 44 remained on the vice presidential nomination. as spring approached several challengers to his nomination emerged including richard m johnson, commodore charles stewart. lewis cass and of course john c calhoun who never seems to go away. more importantly the death of the terry of state on board the uss princeton changed everything regarding the convention and its nominees. tyler's a ointment of john c calhoun as secretary of state led to a revival of the
question and jeopardized work on annexation. calhoun had already planned to make texas annexation the main issue to use that he could play in 44 and now he had tremendous power to shake not only the focus of the general campaign but also of the democrats nomination process. calhoun in van buren did not like one another. calhoun was looking to torpedo van buren's nomination. already seen as a campaign issue, annexation became more important in the public eye. van buren began to receive queries from individuals and groups of democrats across the country asking for his opinion on annexation and specifically immediate annexation and he chose to respond to one particular request by a mississippi representative, william henry hammett. van buren's letter was published and written in his usual meandering manner. if you haven't read any letters, not only is the
handwriting terrible and he goes on and on and on. much like my students do when they are trying to reach the word count. in any case van buren's letter outlined his opposition to the immediate annexation of texas taking a stance against immediate annexation may have please some friends but it doomed his chances of receiving the democrats presidential nomination. in april, jackson asked polk to visit him at hermitage which he did do. during his meeting with jackson, the general pronounced immediate annexation is not only important but the estimation had committed a fatal error. jackson believed the democrats needed to nominate solid annexation man from the southwest and in his view polk that the bill. his we hammett declaration was replaced with firm determination. he said he should support van
buren which would position him as the running mate and polk claimed i stood by mr. van buren and i will stand by him as long as there's hope. nevertheless polk said that if van buren's efforts failed, then perhaps he could become the top choice for the democrats. he was in his friends hands polk said and they could use my name in any way that they proper in baltimore. the democratic convention did not go in van buren's way. they chose to implicate the two thirds rule rule and he was not able to win the nomination. on the eighth ballot polk name appeared. he was a contender for the presidency and on the ninth ballot he became the choice of the democrats. following polk nomination and van buren did not directly communicate. during the 44 campaign but van buren publicly did support his
party's ticket. he did so primarily in new york and it was not just because of the democrats, van buren was trying to help elevate his sun john in new york politics. part of his machinations were to help his son. polk victory in november provided an opportunity for reconciliation between him and van buren but that did not happen. the two fell out over polk's cabinet choices. if you read the correspondence between polk and van buren from january through early march 1945 you get a really good sense of how frustrated van buren is with not being able to force polk to make the right choices and you get a sense of the frustration polk as with a man who lost the presidency and couldn't even get the nomination telling him what to do as he is about to come into office. so, i won't give you all the details but i want to give you one example and this comes later in the process. essentially what van buren wanted was he wanted new york
to have the top cabinet choice for secretary of state and wants to choose treasury for new york and lots of things going on there. but eventually as polk is traveling, van buren spends more and more time and he told polk you need to choose benjamin butler who was a good friend, warmer law partner of van buren. you need to choose and for the state department. on february 22 polk wrote van buren about that post and he said he had the letters in hand but the landscape had changed. he said we are arriving here and taking a survey of the whole ground. i found great difficulties that necessitated other appointments and eventually as you heard earlier today buchanan will serve as secretary of state. but polk still wants van buren but only for the war department. he asked van buren dumont butler for the war department or do you want william l marcy.
marcy was on the other side of the democratic party in new york. he was on the anti-van buren side. so van buren doesn't want marcy. he writes back and told polk her vacillation has caused me considerable embarrassment and pain and makes other suggestions but not marcy. so, what is really interesting is without even waiting for van buren's reply polk moves ahead. and he wound up appointing marcy after butler declined to take the war department. as polk explained to van buren if i have committed an error i can only say it was unintentional. he promised to send a full explanation. what is interesting as the polk editors noted and as you can see on the library of congress copy, on the back of the letter prompting a full explanation van buren wrote the promised explanations have not been made. what happens after this, polk through an intermediary offers
to make an ambassadorial appointment for van buren and he refuses. the two men do not correspond except for two letters that polk sends to van buren containing two messages. van buren wrote spike two quick notes saying i received these and that is the end of their correspondent. i don't that polk lost much sleep over it. van buren was bitter about this and in 48 as many of you will know will not only be nominated by the faction in new york for the presidency but also by the party and van buren does go back to the democrats but the damage has been done to their relationship. thank you. >> i would like to introduce now kelly houston jones to speak on polk and the business of slavery.
doctor jones is the assistant professor of history at arkansas tech. she writes about the history of slavery mostly in the trans- mississippi south. >> i would also like to thank the conference organizers and thank howe. i am probably the least polk person here. i come to this from an interest that was begun when i was researching the history of slavery in arkansas. by the way, since we are on camera eight weary land, slavery on the ground in arkansas will be published by the university of georgia press. get that little plug-in there.
so, one of the things i noticed about the pattern in that history was a prevalence of absentee owned plantations on the side of the mississippi river. when i was having one of those great conversations that you have with students, he said well you know, this guy knows polk. he said you know, james k polk was a planter. i have thought of polk as a slaveholder but it wasn't really on my radar that he fits this and it would be a documented fit. it was just an interest i had. as i explored that i learned a whole bunch about a lot of polk and buying plantations in arkansas and north louisiana and of course in mississippi. so, that is sort of how i ended up in this. this conference has given me a chance to indulge in this side interest that i have, absentee
plantations. now, this talk was probably the better title. i probably should have called it the polk and the business of slavery because very little of it is actually about james k polk himself but it is about that tangled family tree of slaveholding polk's that we learned about this morning. so, james k polk is a part of this history of absentee planters. i call them 19th-century portfolio planters. we think of portfolio citations as a 20th century agricultural development time trying to be provocative on purpose and this is a portfolio investment. if you never go to the plantation, sometimes the overseer is begging them to come see because they need a contract for next year. a lot of times these guys aren't going and they don't know what is going on. it is an investment and that is what it is. so what i found in looking at these patterns as this is
actually a much more extensive part of this history than i had given credence to in my research. there are quite a few of the absentee holdings. it is a little difficult to find out when it is in absentee held plantation. some are more obvious than others. if you have questions about what i defined as absentee and not we can hash that out. but in my preliminary research on this i found that in antigo county arkansas which is southeast arkansas, if i use a conservative estimate about 12% of the enslaved people in that county were on absentee owned plantations. okay, that is not huge, but i'm getting a sense that there is a significant part of the story that maybe we are missing. there are places where there is no white family in the big house. there is no big house. there is an overseer house and that is the end of it.
now, this pattern has been more documented by historians, but slavery historians love notd by slavery historians really love natchez. people are living there and of course owning these plantations across the river, so you know, that's a little bit more well-documented. i've found for sure that about 24, 25% of the enslaved people in those, you know, county there is in louisiana are held by absentee owners, you know, across the river, but anthony kay estimated that it was probably about half, okay, of them. a little bit of different situation because of the proximi proximity, okay, what i'd like to do by exploring the polks and stuff is kind of position tennessee in this, a planter who lives somewhere like columbia, tennessee, and owns a plantation
in arkansas, that really is absent. that really does change the landscape. so we're finding that the more i dig into it, the more polks i find who are taking part in this kind of stuff. and it's a network coming out of columbia, tennessee, that you know, polk and friends are involved in, so gideon pillow, for example, is one of these guys. you know, we think of gideon pillow in other contexts, i'm kind of revisiting people that i thought i knew, right, in the context of absentee plantations. so that's the network that james k. polk is plugged into. i guess that's the sort of side of polk that i'm looking to show you today. one of the most successful of these polk relatives, these are like cousins. i was already intimidated by the polk family tree as it was, and after this morning's presentation where we heard the go-to books that i've been using are like wrong a lot, so now i'm just like so bear with me if i'm not getting some of these connections exactly right.
in fact, i might just sort of let you guess. so allen j. polk is one of the most successful of these planters. he had 78 slaves in phillips county, arkansas in 1860. $100,000 in personal estate, $50,000 in real estate. his wife, anna polk is there, and there's a family with the overseer on the place, okay? and so he's one of these planters who has sort of a home base plantation, but then he has other plantations in other spots, and that's a fairly common part of the trend, you know, that i'm seeing. some of these planters will actually spend time in different parts of the year at the different plantations and some of them never go at all. and they don't want to have anything to do with it. so allen j. polk is one of these really rich planters, sometimes he lives in columbia. sometimes he lives in north carolina. sometimes he lives in kentucky, sometimes he's in mississippi, and sometimes he's in arkansas.
that's the polk net woerk that we're talking about here. he probably also has a plantation in tunica county, mississippi. there were 200 enslaved people on that place. there's another place in that same county that i think might be him, but i'm not sure because they're doing the initials a.j., and so i'm trying to keep it sort of conservative and not put it down unless i know for sure. i suspect, i sort of smell al p j. polk on that plantation. he also had 88 slaves in chico county, arkansas. didn't live there, or at least not all the time, married into the hilliard family and he and john polk we're talking about one of the wealthy planter families in southeast arkansas, and may have also had some mississippi plantations as well. there's a hamilton polk also who's got a large operation in
bolivar county, mississippi, and he may have as many as three that he's got, and one of those seems to be a joint venture, which we see that james k. polk did this with his brother-in-law, pool your resources, purchase a plantation, purchase enslaved people to put on it, and sort of use that as uniyour investment. these polk investments are not always absentee. sometimes they begin absentee i suspect but then the family will end up moving there. it's one of those thin things if you're not familiar with the transmississippi south. people thought arkansas was the edge of the earth. people still think arkansas is the edge of the aearth. one of james k. polk's cousins, susan polk, she marries a planter named kenneth rainer,
and sometimes they live on the plantation, sometimes they don't. she doesn't want to go there. she won't go past memphis supposedly, and so they -- you know, sometimes they will -- people refuse -- they'll invest but they refuse to settle there, and it takes them some time to sort of pull the trigger and move to arkansas to the other side of the river. now, one of the patriarchs, okay, of a branch of the polk family did make his home in phillips county, arkansas, and was very prosperous. william wilson stingy bill polk. i'm really excited about that. if i'm right about this, he's james k. polk's uncle, okay, and we can fight that out, you all fix it for me if i'm wrong about that. so apparently the family knows him as stingy bill, but he's not that stingy because he loaned the president-elect $9,000.
that $9,000 is created on the backs of enslaved people in phillips county, arkansas in the 1840s, 1830s and 1840s, so he had been in murray county, tennessee, he moved to hardiman county tennessee, but by 1840 he's in phillips county arkansas. i'm pulling some of this straight from the polk correspondence. according to those notes, okay, he lends this $9,000 to james k. polk, and nthen he kind of not o subtly hints around that he would like an appointment for thomas polk in like missouri or somewhere. this is where i get a little hung up. his son is named thomas. there's a bunch of other thomas pol polks. the point is that's the network james k. polk is plugged into. i'm kind of giving the epilogue of one of the presentations we
heard this morning about the expansion of land holdings and consolidation of power by the polk family in earlier years. he died in october 1848, buried in phillips county, arkansas. that plantation is inherited, you know, by his children, and they, at least one of them sticks around and continued to do very well, okay. if you follow that particular holding through the census, it looks like it shrinks as far as the number of enslaved people held is down to 50 but that's because thomas has to give to his siblings. i say all of this to say we've got to understand polk as part of this network. one of the things i noticed earlier in my sort of, you know, peeking here and there on scholarship about polk is that sometimes we write about him as sort of a product of his time, not as much as a crater of that
system. polk the expansionist, the polk family ads part of this expansin into the old southwest, so that way james k. polk and his family as creators of this slave system, right, he's of this generation that learns how to get the most out of the southwest as possible. he gets it from, you know, those -- that kind of work like from his dad, from his father's cousin, colonel william polk, also, you know, they speculate in land. they diversify and all kinds of things or took advantage of what was available. so of course james k. polk is watching these -- this business, you know, very carefully. he's forging partnerships. in fact, when a man who has gone down in history as chunky jack kept running -- i'm full of
these -- chunky jack kept running away from polk's mississippi plantation to arkansas because arkansas is the end of the earth. chunky jack keeps running off to arkansas. all james k. polk has to do is plug into those connections, political, family, all of the above, right, to help him retake chunky jack. here's something that's interesting about william dusenbury's contribution to this scholarship is you can kind of tell that historians of slavery weren't quite ready to outright call these operations what they were, right? you know, investment capitalist enterprises, okay, and not everybody is e nam moenamored w new history of slavery, and i would enjoy watching people duke
that out. i think it's really helpful for this, you know, context to understand polk in this way. but in dusenbury's book, he uses the word investment in places in quotation marks. he's talking about how somebody viewed the plantation as an investment. of course it's an investment. what else could it be, right? we understand slavery is a social system. we also have to understand it, you know, as an investment, right? so james k. polk is watching these things closely. that was going to be the retirement plan, right, and he doesn't live very long so of course that's one of the major ways that sarah polk is, you know, financially stable, very precarious to be widowed in that time, even if you were a white woman widow of a president, and so that financial stability is really important, and amy greenburg can tell you all kinds of interesting things about sarah polk's story.
in fact, they're so interested in protecting the investment, okay, that sarah polk files a claim with the southern claims commission in the 1870s for this mississippi plantation. and she was ready, you-all. there was already a letter in her overseer's hands during the war that said please respect my property, federal forces. please don't take the stuff, and so then according to this claim when the union soldier shows up in august 1863, the overseer hands them this -- i think they were calling it a protection paper, and it doesn't work, okay, and so the overseer in like march '64 writes out a letter detailing what was taken from this plantation, and he includes the enslaved people who left. there was like ten and names them and possibly in hopes that, you know they might get
reimbursed, they don't know what's going to happen, right, at that point. we should understand it as an investment. we should understand it as part of this network, okay. there's some really great new scholarship coming up. stephanie jones rogers has some good stuff on women as slavers, and then of course you know, like i said, amy greenburg's got, we're going to hear about her excellent work as well and so i would say let's get comfortable with, you know, continuing the comments that i'd been hearing at this symposium, you know, about not just polk as an expansionist like politically, right, but as somebody who is part of actively part of creating this system, if the roots of american capitalism are in american -- the growth of american slavery in this time period, then we've got to look at james k. polk. we've got to look at columbia, tennessee, right?
that's where they're sort of lauch launching this assault if you will to sort of take over and create these networks and the oel old southwest. that's just a little bit of what i've been thinking about those things. thanks. >> i'll never forget chunky jack. i'd like to introduce now dr. rachel sheldon. dr. sheldon is associate professor of history at the university of oklahoma right now, but will soon be moving to penn state to direct the richards civil war era center. she's the author of "washington brotherhood, politics, social life, and the coming of the civil war" which received honorable mention for the wylie silver prize for the best first book on the american civil war. please welcome dr. shelton.
>> thank you so much. thank you for being here. thank you to michael for inviting me. this has been really educational so far. i'm really enjoying my time. i hope all of you are too. i'm not going to talk a long time. i promise to stay under 15 minutes, but i want to spend the time i do have talking about a member of polk's inner circle that you may want may not know much about. supreme court justice john catrin. sort of without any context about who john catri was. he doesn't get the same kind of attention like some of his contemporaries do. it's a mistake to overlook this man. he was a critical behind the scenes player in the mid-19th century and particularly in james k. polk's life.
getting to know catrin helps us to better understand how the supreme court fits into the political culture of the mid-19th century. we're lucky to have daniel walker howe here as part of this conference. in his really important book, the political culture of the american wigs, he talks about the unspoken or rarely spoken system of beliefs, attitudes, modes of operation, and especially methods of solving problems underlying american politics. this is the key to understanding political culture. now maybe you're saying to yourself, but we're about to talk about a supreme court justice. why are we talking about political culture as opposed to judicial culture. how does political culture apply here? certainly court observers and many of the justices today would have you believe that the court is apolitical, right, that it is
not involved in the political system what ever so, and i will leave the current system and questions about that maybe to a ray t later time. in terms of the 19th searcenturf we're going to talk about the court in the 19th sshcentury we need to erase the idea of an apolitical supreme court in our minds, reframing the catrin polk relationship from the perspective of political culture, those unspoken or rarely spoken beliefs, attitudes and methods, gives us a much more meaningful picture of how the federal government operated in the mid-19th century. so there are a number of elements that make up this political culture of the court and the sue peer yad. as i talk about polk and catrin's relationship, i want you to keep three many mine. the first element i might called fluidity. governance was just messier in the mid-19th century, and what i mean by this is that because of the nature of political networks
in this period, there was considerable overlap and less hardens boundaries between the branches of government, the levels of government and political organizations. so seeing the supreme court in the context of this more fluid political system helps to make sense of the justices' behavior th in this period and the relationship between polk and catrin clearly illustrates this. the second element we might talk about as ethics. now, judicial ethics of the kind we imagine today did not exist in the 19th century. we didn't really start writing treatises on judicial ethics until the end of the 19th century, beginning of the 20th sr century with the professionalization of the law. that does not mean this was a period of intense corruption where anything went. instead we have to recognize that judges policed their own behavior in the context of political ethics, a much more
discussed con cemecept in this period. so as a result judges behave in ways that we often think of as political today out of the bounds of what was appropriate but that seemed perfectly appropriate to americans at the time. catrin is going to behave in deeply political behavior in our modern perspective, but this remained purely ethical from both men's perspective and other americans. the final element is sociability. the political culture of the mid-19th century was also an intensely social experience. political negotiation, networking and alliances were played out not only in official political spaces like the capital and the white house, but also in social ones, in boardinghouses and hotel, at parties and dinners and even through the complexities of washington etiquette. to understand how members of the supreme court fit into american
politics, we have to keep this in mind, that social spaces are where a lot of political discussion happened, and again, polk and catrin's social experiences and interactions serve as a perfect model for seeing this. as a result of these ethical, fluid and social considerations, what really matters to understanding the way judges fit in the political culture of the period is to think about networks, political networks. to think about how men like polk and catrin operated as part of a deeply personal political system. okay, so let me tell you a little bit about polk and c catrin. the two men were actually distantly related through marriage. their wives were both from the childress family, and i learned they were maybe third cousins. but the catrins and polks became close.
john catrin was actually close with both polks as i'm sure amy will discuss later. he was even a confidant of sarah's, and these families retained their relationships while catrin sat on the supreme court and polk sat in congress and the white house. so critically the relationship between the president obaolks a catrins like many political families of the era was deep seeded, deeply political and deeply partisan. polk and catrin were also connected through the politics of tennessee where they were both strong allies of andrew jackson. polk helped get jackson elected to the senate, and jackson had rewarded catrin's political friendship with a seat on the supreme court in 1837, and political friendship is the key phrase there because politics is how presidents decided on their supreme court nominees. you may know that 19th centuries justices did not have the same
kind of credentials as they do today. state and federal judges often moved seamlessly between traditional political positions such as state representative or lieutenant governor, then into the judiciary, and then back into those political positions, and so as a result there were really no feeder courts from which presidents could find a farm team of suitable supreme court judges as they often do today. instead, political experience was often the best indicator for who was going to join the supreme court. 19th century presidents typically made supreme court nominations squarely based on partisan reasoning rewarding political friends with a job in the judiciary. to give you some sense of this, in 1844 when polk received the nomination for president, catrin was serving on the bench with eight other men. he was the only justice of these nine who did not have experience
working in some other official political office, whether executive or legislative, and one of only two to have never served in the federal government in one of those offices. the other person had been lieutenant governor of virginia. this somewhat masks catrin's political acumen, however. he may not have come from a traditional political office, but he did have very clear political connections. in short, catrin was very involved in the newspaper business. now, as many of you know newspapers in the 19th century were run by political organizations, members of a political party would come together and publish a paper dedicated to the policies of a political party. a political party couldn't operate without the use of a newspaper, in part because they had to print ballots for recollections. knowing this helps us to situate
c c catrin's influence. catrin was a political backer financially of the nashville union, which was a paper dedicated to democratic politics, it had been very involved in helping get martin van buren elected in 1836. catrin not only helped support the paper financially, but he also occasionally wrote editorials for the paper, the critical space where political opinions could be fleshed out. i wonder what would happen if we found out some modern supreme court justices were writing editorials in their home state papers. might be kind of interesting. so ultimately then, the nomination of supreme court justices was not simply about constitutional principles. these men were overwhelmingly rewarded for their political commitments, not their judicial service. what's more, confirmation as a supreme court justice did not bring an end to the close relationships with their political friends. while today we might be uncomfortable with a justice
speaking openly about politics after assuming his role on the supreme bench this raised no eyebrows in the mid-19th century. it was no surprise then that fwichb catrin's close relationship with polk, the former was deeply involved in the latter's political life, and this manifested itself in many ways. while polk was in congress and catrin on the court, the two men often discussed congressional legislation, sometimes this had to do with bills regarding jute dish area and other times not. catrin hoffered his friend advie for how to effect a reasonable solution. the political relationship was more than just discussion. when a judiciary bill that the other supreme court justices didn't like came up for discussion in the house, they implored catrin to convince polk to get rid of it, to make sure it did not pass. this kind of political
conversation and maneuvering was particularly possible because catrin and polk lived together in washington when both men served there. now, again, this may seem odd to you, a supreme court justice living with the speaker of the house in washington, d.c., but in the 1840s and 50s justices often lived in the same boardinghouses and hotels as members of congress, and so there was nothing amiss when the two men coordinated lodgings before the congressional and supreme court sessions. one session, for example, they ended up at jonathan elliott's boardinghouse. in addition to sharing living quarters, the two men attended dinners and parties together and socialized regularly, and as i showed in my first book, the kind of conversation that happened at these dinner parties was dripping with political importance. they've talked politics all the time in social spaces. when polk retired from washington to run for governor of tennessee, catrin is going to remain a close political friend
there. the two men continued to discuss federal politics but also state level offices and issues. catrin also routinely visited with the polks while he was riding circuit in tennessee. this was sort of the 19th century oddity by which supreme court justices spent a few months in washington and then the remainder of their time riding circuits, so going to the courts on their particular circuit catrin's sixth circuit included tennessee, so he spent several weeks a year hearing cases there, and the two men discussed democratic strategy and the state legislature, just the two of hthem and with other political allies. catrin was writing letters about political gossip and strategy from his seat in the supreme court chamber to james and sarah. the other critical activity catrin engaged in during polk's
time as governor was president making. initially catrin worked to develop a plan to push for polk's nomination as vice president, but as things began to develop in 1844, catrin quickly discovered he had an opportunity to get polk into the first chair and so catrin lobbied congressmen and strategic jipolk could rely on catrin to be one of his strongest advocates on the ground. catrin worked his contacts in nashville and washington to try to effect polk's nomination and he even opened his house to james and sarah to serve as something of a political parlor for entertaining allies and essentially campaigns. catrin and several of polk's other allies worked to develop policy ideas and exchange thoughts about sarah's role in the coming campaign as well. while we might feel uncomfortable with this kind of
overt politicking by a supreme court justice on behalf of pat s presidential candidate today, there was nothing amiss in the 19th century. the line between the federal judicial and executive departments so was blurry in this period that several of catrin's brother judges went beyond advocating of a political friend, and just ran for president themselves. just about half of the justices in this period are interested in becoming president. >> during his presidential years, interacting with him in formal and informal political spaces. he visited polk at his sauoffic and was even know to sit with presidents and congressmen while he conducted his business. people would come in and talk to polk about these various bills and catrin just would weigh in
from his seat in the room. in the evenings, they often dined with the polks, sometimes with other members of the cabinet, out of the supreme court, cabinet officials and congressmen, and sometimes in more intimate settings, and just as in polk's years as a congressman, the two men talked politics openly in these spaces. i've given you a little sketch of polk and catrin's relationship as a window into the political culture of the 19th century and the supreme court's place in it, and i just want to reiterate that if we can see the political friendship between these two men as representative and normal rather than unique and unethical, we can better understand how americans of that time envisioned the role of judges in the federal government and more generally in essence, we have to stop thinking about the 19th century court as outside the political system and rather as an sbintegral part of not just e
judicial decision-making but also the politics of the era. thank you very much. >> i'm going to introduce our fearless leader, john panero, his book is the award winning missionaries of republicanism, a religious history of the mexican/american war. >> i'd like to start by thanking the polk project for inviting me and also when i think about the polk project and correspondence series like this in the paper series, especially somebody at a small college with hardly any travel budget, really help out quite a bit. i want to give a plug for those since this will end up on c-span, which i think may also be funded.
so the title of this is james k. polk as war president. as commander in chief, polk oversaw a huge military effort in the mexican american war as american soldiers invaded mexico by land and sea, in one of the most successful military campaigns of the 19th century. my goal with this brief talk, which is based on a longer essay of mine and edit volume is to assess polk's performance as a war the p. historians have never lacked interest in polk's culpability in the mexican war. today i'm more interested in his effectiveness. the relative question is whether polk helped or hindered the war effort with his temperament, his partisanship and micromanagement. he was a grand strategist that understood that good wartime leadership is also tending to domestic considerations like
politics, public opinion, and civil military relations. polk recognized dangers of tw fanaticals in american exceptionalis exceptionalisms. tuned into the war's potential complications related to religion. he foresaw the pitfalls of mexico's political religious environment even as he sought allies in the u.s. congress, assessed his commanders and decided how best to quote, unquote conquer a peace. at the same time he had to negotiate the american aversion to a large regular army and try to tamp down intense partisanship, including his own. all this he did successfully. a president's wartime leadership is motnot just measured by how l he directs a war effort, but also how he responds to politicking, opposition and dissent. the species polk gained in congress as speakers in the
1830s served him well except for the his failed scheme so that a democrat might hold a higher rank, polk made no major political misstep. he received everything he requested from congress in spite of wig and native american party resistance. more significant to how polk dealt with anti-war opposition, he followed james madison's model where civil liberties were concerned. unlike james add damams, polk resisted the temptation, emphasized this in his talk, relating it to polks sense of his own republican ideology. he never strayed from his goal of secures california an accomplishment that would open the pacific basin to u.s. trade and keep the most valuable part of the west coast out of british hands.
at first this meant holding northern mexico in the hopes the mexicans would retreat. polk ordered scott into veracruz. polk had to leave and did so convincing a doubtful cabinet that taking the fight to mexico would be more fruitful than merely defending california and new mexico while waiting for mexico to recognize the conquest. polk argues bauer quote had an entirely unrealistic view of the war because he thought california could be gained quickly with very little military effort. to bolster this assertion, bower sites one of polk's advisers during the ere arly months of t war. benton complained that the polk administration was filled with peaceful men who wanted only enough war to accomplish their goals. more pacifistic trepidation than
the typical use of war as an instrument of state craft. quote, never were men less imbued with military spirit benton says. now benton it should be said had his sights set on that high military post, in fact the highest of all. he wanted to be lieutenant general. doing that would have marked the reappearance of the rank for the first time since 1798, and that was when jorgeorge washington briefly held that. he would only serve if he could be scott's superior. i think his criticism of polk's lack of marshal spirit, which bower seems to take at face value must therefore be read in light of his arrogance and ambition. foresaw difficulties that many of his generals did not. within his limited powers he tried where he could from preventing the war from taking
on an -- led to a longer and much more bloody conflict. polk was the key player in deflating the all mexico movement. this helped avoid a long gr guerrilla war. polk did gradually escalate the mexican war. he did so not out of conflict aversion or domestic political considerations. he did so out of frustration. his limited goals never changed, only his tactics. the desire to wage war in the most limited way possible still congruent with one's objectives is not a bad predilection in a wartime president. to say that pollik wanted a qui wr war is to say polk is like every other president who led the country into the war with the exception of roosevelt and wilson.
prior to the war, presidents, kbrns and congress all played a role in fielding regiments and appointing officers. this process was politicized long before polk took office. understanding it is critical if one is to separate partisanship of the imtemperate and imprudent kind from rational party loyalty or politicization in pursuit of policy and wartime goals. polk's two leading generals, zachary taylor and winfield scott were wigs, but polk did not dislike scott merely because he was a wig. it didn't hurt, but that wasn't the only reason. the two men disagreed on strategy and tactics. what scott understood that polk did not is that logistically it would take a great deal to have time to recruit and mobilize an army of volunteers. polk thought scott was too plotting to see the big picture, which included gaining
california in a palatable treaty and excluded for political and gee owe strategic renals remaining in washington city and taking the time to plot the perfect war against mexico. to his credit and dismay, pl k knew scott was the best general in the united states. this does not mean polk trusted scott. he did not, but he was willing to use him to win the war and before finally discarding him amid a false controversy engineered by gideon pillow one of polk's appointees, once the u.s. army controlled mexico city. it led to victory and achieved polk's limited goals. there is no doubt that polk made partisan appointments to the army officer corps. all 13 of the generals he appointed were democrats. this was not beyond the norm, however, for volunteer officers appointed by wig governors, aspiring politicians in every state jockeyed for position
hoping to turn battlefield glory into a state house or congressional seat. it is no coincidence that scott's replacement, the democrat general butler ran against taylor for the presidency in 1848, nor is it a koin coincidence that scott did finally run for a president as a wig. that year he was beat by franklin pierce whom polk had raised to the rank of brigadier general. this might not have been the best way to choose officers or to pick presidents for that matter, but it was the american way in the age of jackson. zachary taylor's political leanings were not explicitly known at the star of the war. but as presidential aspirations became the worst kept secret in washington city thanks to his november 1846 letter to general edmond gaines. in the gaines letter, taylor criticizes polk, criticizes scott, criticizes scott's
strategy and declares the value of any land the united states might win not worth, quote, the amount of blood and treasure which must be expended. this letter convinced polk beyond any doubt that taylor was a disloyal general. the only thing that kept the president from removing taylor was the general's popularity following buena vista. polk assumed his -- governor surely did so, in such an atmosphere would it not be unwise for polk to appoint wigs to lead a war so vociferously denounced who cast their votes in favor of declaring war. it is and the rationale kochoic the the president might make given the antebellum political structure.
he was not less jacksonian with his own policies and personalizes significant disagreements. he made thhave that in common wh the historical profession too perhaps. polk saw no reason his party should not benefit from presidential patronage. the president's partisanship was the means by which he intended to ensure the army fought the war he wanted it to fight. it it effect on future elections was a bonus. many historians characterize polk's careful attention to detail as relentless micromanagement. there is no doubt about it. polk was in what contemporary terms we would call a micromanager, which is to say he forcefully and directly oversaw minutia most others would have
delegated and he even second guessed decisions in areas where he had no professional training, such as the planning by scott or taylor. the important question is whether this hindered o'or helped in the war against mexico. seeingen that willer argues that polk's leadership style, especially with the war department hindered rather than benefitted the war effort. this is doubly true at -- what he calls relentless micromanagement i call in my first book an energetic management style. this is why quote the minimal structure of the war department in 1846 suited polk's temperament and controlling permi
personality. ten staff departments each of which answered to the general in chief. the general it chief took orders from the secretary of war who answered to the president. lifelong civil servants. the heads of these departments from administration to administration. since so many of them were wigs, during the war they challenged po polk's expectations. the most troublesome were department bureaucrat to give you one example for polk, this gave jones a great deal of power. he thwarted polk wherever he could, particularly in the realm of officer appointments. at one point jones colluded with scott to counter marcy's and thus polk's request to increase the number of generals. secretary marcy was too clueless to detect this, but polk was not. someone said earlier politics
may have been polk's religion. we can argue about that. it is prudent at the least when faced with a partisan war department, partisan generals and an already politicized military system to monitor closely one's own generals and war department personnel. it helped win the war with the settlement polk wanted. as taylor's election to the presidency in 1848 shows it was inef ineffective plill ineffective plilly. during the war, polk and secretary marcy oversaw a streamlining. the end result ignored the result of the staff sergeants that had become so -- for polk. related to the president's wartime goals. while it might have hindered the ability of the inspector general or quarter master it did not affect battlefield readiness or the outcome of the war. polk also personally reviewed the war department budget during
the meks car war, a task previously undertaken by middle level officials. it occurred after polk caught marcy attempting to funnel money through the war department to his own pet political project, a series of internal improvements. whether the federal government should fund the construction of internal improvements was one of the p top contentious issues. wig favored all three. most democrats opposed them. polk's veto of the river bill was one of the signature of his presidency. marcy's attempt to garner money for internal improvements via the war department could have caused untold political damage to polk. polk was not the first modern president in the commanding way theodore roosevelt was. the powers her irrigated to the
executive branch during the way passed away with the treaty of guadalupe hidalgo. democratic partisanship, suspicious temperament, and penchant to micromanage along with his own self-discipline and his self-conscious unwillingness to attack civil liberties, with the exception of self-discipline these might work together or separately to hinder the prosecution of war. in polk's case they operated together to make him an efficient and successful commander in chief during the mexican/american war. thank you. [ applause ] and now i'd like to introduce aaron crawford who might have the best title of any of us up here today. aaron crawford formerly of the center for presidential history at southern methodist university has just begun his tenure as
assistant editor of the papers of andrew jackson at the university of tennessee and is working on a monograph about presidential memoirs. aaron's going to talk about the arresting achievement, of the overshadowed, the perilous reemergence of james k. polk. >> thank you very much, john: and i also want to thank michael cohen to bring this conference together. it's an experience seeing all of my former assistant editors of the james k. polk project and that's kind of what i want to talk about, the sort of the journey i had from here and particularly the last five to six years that i had at the
center for presidential history, in part because the project that i primarily worked on there was an oral history of the george w. bush administration, and i really wish that polk had a relative named george w. polk. [ laughter ] >> it would have satisfied several people. it's a question that has been going around in my mind for several years simply because probably more than any other president as i moved in and out of world histories with secretary of states, secretaries of defense, people who come to events, it was about james k. polk. people seem to be kind of gravitating towards polk, and they were republicans.
which raised some interesting questions, and it's -- it's had me thinking really about polk and particularly about his obscure after life, and this is really -- this is really what polk is known for is his obscurity. [ laughter ] i can remember a day long ago during graduate school had dan feller introduced me to a wonderful essay by james thurber from 1936 called "something about polk," which is -- there's just something about polk that we can't remember anything about him. [ laughter ] and i'll quote thurber, for all of our array of presidents, there's none less memorable than james k. polk. if ten patriots picked at random were asked to list the names of all the presidents, it is likely that most of them would leave
out the name of the 11th. even if they remembered his name, surely none of them could put down a single fact about him. he was a man of no arresting achievement. now, this is in 1936 after a good 40-year effort by historians to convince americans that no one had actually had more arrests achievements than james k. polk, and they were really successful within the historical profession. but this obscurity sort of took on a life of its own, and thurber was sort of the jufrimp off point. you can find countless articles throughout america for the next 60 years where polk is frankly ridiculed for this obscurity. 1964, in california, students came together to form the first james k. polk fan club, and you
get the -- we get the impression that they only wanted it for their news letter which was the slow polk, or the 1984 article in the "new york times" about polk's hometown where the journalist went and the local burger king had put a picture of polk there in the restaurant, and almost everyone who walked in thought it was the man who founded burger king. [ laughter ] this is polk's home up to town way in north carolina. two or three years later, 1988 campaign when al gore, you know, debate when he's asked by the way, we don't get these questions anymore, these people say they asked gore if you were elected president, whose portrait are you going to hang in the oval office, and he said james k. knox.
[ laughter ] now that's strange enough, but then the strange thing is that bruce babbot, another candidate said he would also hang polk's po portrait up. these are people who have some appreciation for polk. you know, in 1995, america finally got around to giving polk his postage stamp. and by the end of the year you will see countless articles about how it was the worst selling stamps. in fact, one them is the innovative u.s. senate who finally gave polk his stamp in 1995, that pretty much says it all. even until last week when i was thinking about this, sat down to
watch an episode of "seinfeld," and one of the -- one of my favorite episodes, the bizarre jerry, when jerry is being set up by land with a potential girlfriend and when he look a the her picture and turns to the back of her picture to see her stats, the last fact is favorite president, james k. polk, and that apparently seals the deal for jerry. and then of course i will also mention there might be giants. i'm sure everybody here associated with polk has been asked this countless times. almost everybody or at least the people i've talked to in the last few years see it as this earnest effort to give polk his recognition, but even in the writing of the song it was an
exercise in obscuritobscurity. it was the song writer sitting down just pull facts out of a textbook to see if they could write a song about it. the strange thing is in the years after that, just maimagin wri writing this song and they actually finally read a book or two and it declared polk evil and really questions issue you know, the power of this song. those are just a handful of the sort of obscure, you know, polk things. but they are amassed for something far more serious, which is sort of the divergence between what historians have argued about polk and what the public has long known starting
with bancold fro croft and euge mccormick, give him credit for being one of the strongest executives in american history. fairly successful, sort of crowned by 1958, the effort by harry truman when he names the four most underrated presidents saying polk is the most underrated maybe the best president, and you see this reflected in the rankings where polk by the time of arthur schlesing schlesinger's rankings you see polk in the top ten regularly. there's a real effort, a real desire to give polk his credit, but the problem is that's typically not what the public felt, and you'll often see polk emerge in these strange moments when the public had a real problem with the mexican war and
polk's prosecution of it, so when truman made his comments in 1958, it's just four years later when attorney general robert kennedy on a tour of indonesia asked questions by students about imperialism when he actually -- i think he may be the first modern official it just outright say that the war was unjustified and it was wrong, and basically that to quote him, i do not think we can be proud of that episode. starting to think about the single moment was the response of historians, alan evans who said mr. kennedy, of course, is quite entitled to his opinion, which is the old traditional one for massachusetts. in effort saying that historians have long ago left behind this image of polk as an fwaggressor
an imperialist, and someone that cannot -- that america can be proud of, and as i think about this article they go to texas and ask their responses, and you'll appreciate this. they almost all responded to this as an attack on the alamo, and itsome really strong commen from texans one in particular who said i'm sure that bobby would like to come home and dismantle the alamo and put up a housing complex. which is, you know, no doubt a veiled racial attack on the -- that position. so this is really the public whenever a serious discussion of polk happens, it always happens
in wartime, and it always casts serious doubt on polk as an american leader, his patriotism, and his judgment as a war leader. in probably the last serious conflict, this was -- was in 1991 in the run up to the persian gulf war, in an editorial in "the wall street journal," nonetheless, james perry wrote this, president polk found dozens of reasons to justify his attack on mexico in 1846, but the real excuse is manifest destiny, the idea that america's future included, among other things, all of what is now mexico and california. in essence, polk's rationale in taking this territory from a
weak neighbor wasn't all that different from the iraqi leader is a d saddam hussein in marching on kuwait. pretty much an astounding comparison from an american president. this is from "the wall street journal." you see a real continuity from a century when polk was discussed it was all about his war effort. and american officials starting in the late '90s really see this a problem particularly as they're trying to rehab, restart the u.s. relationship with mexico, when bill clinton goes to mexico city in 1997, the people that worked for him realized that they had to do a real crash course on the mexican war because what they figured out when they went there were these were people who remembered the mexican war, and they had really definite ideas about what it meant, and to say james k. polk to them was not to raise the ghost of an obscure person.
i would like to thank you all for coming, and for participating in this roundtable. i want to pivot the discussion if i might. we studied for many years and as time goes forward and history is looking at the lazy. for me the thing that i find treasuring most about him or i think might be his greatest legacy is his diaries. i think his diaries are phenomenal work for first- person writing. what are your opinions of his diaries compared to other memoirs or first-person works, what was your assessment of him?
>> i can't really speak to that one. >> it's an extraordinary document. >> going through it again a few weeks ago, this again tells you everything you know about polk's disappointment. it's 2071 pages. it's a massive effort that he did every single day once he started. while it's not particularly reflective, because polk isn't particularly reflective guy. it tells you a lot about being president. and exactly what it entails and what it meant. i don't think it's really appreciated the way it should be. i will go with alan nevins. it says establishes the greatness, in spite of his mediocrity.
>> [ laughter ] >> any questions? did everyone forget about polk already? >> [ laughter ] >> thank you very much.>> [ applause ] >> this is a special edition of american history tv. real america, the civil war, oral histories, the presidency, and special events coverage about our nations history. enjoy american history tv, now and every weekend. washington
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candidate live at the iowa state fair starting thursday on polk -- cspan. listen live from wherever you are on the go, using the free cspan radio app. next, on american history tv are look at president james polk continues . this was part of a conference at the university of tennessee. that marked the completion of a 60 year project. events hosted by the east tennessee society. >> i think we are ready to begin. my name is connie i am associate advisor at the university of central florida. i have moved forward from polk. my area of expertise