Meet the most successful president you’ve never heard of

This February is particularly important for Americans and president-want-to-be’s. First, it is the month in which we celebrate President’s Day. Second, 2016 is a presidential election year. Finally, the month begins with the all-important Iowa Caucuses and is followed by the New Hampshire Presidential Primary. So it seems only appropriate that we consider a successful president you may know little about—President James K. Polk.

Successful presidents must create a strategic vision, communicate that vision to the nation, and then pursue its execution. Classic examples are Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, FDR’s speech to Congress on Dec. 8, 1941, or John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address calling for the nation to “place a man on the moon by the end of the decade.” Even the Bible notes, “Without vision, the people perish…”

But creating a vision is not sufficient. As Warren Bennis, a famous leadership scholar, observed, “Action without vision is stumbling in the dark; vision without action is poverty stricken poetry.” Every leader must answer four critical questions as he or she seeks to implement the path they have chosen for their organization:

  • Where should we go? (Assess)

  • How do we get there? (Decide)

  • Who can help us get there? (Implement)

  • Are we getting there? (Assure/reassess)

President James K. Polk was our 11th chief executive and a protégé of President Andrew Jackson. Inaugurated in 1845, he announced soon after assuming the presidency that he would serve only one term. Polk was the youngest man to assume the presidency to that point. He had served as Speaker of the House of Representatives and is the only person to have held that office as well as the presidency. In 1839, Polk left Congress and was elected governor of Tennessee. He failed, however, in two governorship reelection attempts, and political pundits at the time thought “Young Hickory” (as he was called due to his ties to Jackson) was finished in politics. In 1844, the Democratic Party appeared deadlocked at the nominating convention between its two potential candidates—former President Warren Van Buren and Lewis Cass of Michigan. The aging Andrew Jackson intervened and convinced party leaders to select Polk as a dark horse candidate.

As we consider the often-bruising nature of modern politics it is important to remember that campaigns in 1844 were also rough and tumble. Polk’s opponent was the nationally renowned Henry Clay, known in Congress and throughout the country as “the Great Compromiser.” Shortly after Polk’s nomination, Clay’s Whig party published campaign literature that asked “Who is James K. Polk?” The Democrats responded with a pamphlet entitled “Twenty-one Reasons Why Clay Should Not Be Elected.” Reason Two was “Clay spends his days at the gaming table and his nights in a brothel.”

Polk defeated Clay and was inaugurated on March 4th 1845. The looming question of the day was whether or not the United States would annex Texas and expand its national boundaries westward. The “Lone Star State” was an independent nation at that moment following its successful revolution against Mexican authority in 1835. In his inaugural address Polk stated his vision and made his intent clear:

The world has nothing to fear from military ambition in our Government. While the Chief Magistrate and the popular branch of Congress are elected for short terms by the suffrages of those millions who must in their own persons bear all the burdens and miseries of war, our Government cannot be otherwise than pacific. Foreign powers should therefore look on the annexation of Texas to the United States not as the conquest of a nation seeking to extend her dominions by arms and violence, but as the peaceful acquisition of a territory once her own, by adding another member to our confederation with the consent of that member, thereby diminishing the chances of war and opening to them new and ever increasing markets for their products.

Still President Polk must have known that war with Mexico was likely if the United States proceeded to annex Texas. Furthermore, many Americans were clamoring for war to achieve the America’s so-called divinely inspired “Manifest Destiny” and expand the nation’s borders to the Pacific. The Mexican War (as it is referred to in the US) began in the spring of 1846 and ended with an American victory by the fall of 1847. Members of the Whig Party opposed the war, as they believed it was both imperialist and an attempt to seek new territory for slavery. One of the primary Whig Congressional opponents was a young Illinois congressman named Abraham Lincoln.

So why is Polk considered to be the most successful American president you may have never heard of? Polk clearly articulated his vision and intent as President in his inaugural address. He assessed the situation when he assumed office that the United States had an opportunity to expand and seek its “destiny.” He decided to pursue that with the annexation of Texas while knowing that this would likely mean war with Mexico. Polk implemented his vision by setting conditions that insured war would occur. He led the nation to victory and negotiated the Treaty of Hidalgo with Mexico. President Polk also concluded an agreement with Great Britain that settled a boundary dispute between the US and Canada in the Northwest Territories. We can reassess how well he did by considering that in this one term Polk added a million square miles to the territory of the nation. This included Texas as well as the current states of Arizona, Utah, Nevada, California, Oregon, Idaho, and Washington. Furthermore large portions of Wyoming, Montana, and Colorado were also part of these agreements.

Some might disagree with Polk’s vision or how he implemented it, but there can be little doubt that he had in fact articulated a vision, communicated it clearly, and then executed it. He accomplished all of this in one four-year term. But Polk appears to have been exhausted by his four years in office. As he prepared to depart Washington, he observed, “I am heartily rejoiced that my term is so near its close. I will soon cease to be a servant and will become a sovereign.” James K. Polk left office in March 1849 and died a few months later at the age of 53.