Ten things James K. Polk had in common with George W. Bush:
- Very partisan, perhaps excessively so
- Wanted to politicize the military
- Started a war with a sovereign state...
- On dubious grounds...
- That grew more and more unpopular the longer it lasted
- Expanded executive authority
- Enjoyed a close relationship with a former President
- Ran for President against a former U.S. Senator from a southern state...
- And won the decisive state by a narrow margin thanks in part to the presence of a third party candidate on the ballot...
- But governed as if he'd won a landslide
I just finished Walter Borneman's new biography of James K. Polk (which is quite good, by the way) and as I was reading it, I was struck by the number of parallels between Polk -- one of my favorite U.S. presidents -- and the current occupant of the White House, of whom I'm not particularly fond. Annotations follow!
- 1 and 2: Polk had a rocky relationship with his two top generals, Winfield Scott and Zachary Taylor, because he was a Democrat and they were Whigs. He wanted to create a new rank (lieutenant general) over Scott and Taylor (both major generals) and appoint his political ally Thomas Hart Benton to the position, but Congress didn't approve the new position.
- 3, 4, and 5: The Mexican-American War. Polk relied on reports from Taylor that the Mexican army had attacked U.S. troops on American soil in making his case for war, but he was prepared to ask for a declaration of war on purely political grounds before the report from Taylor came in at the last minute, and there's some question as to whether the attack really was on U.S. soil. The war was ultimately successful, but by the end the Whigs in Congress and public opinion was definitely against it.
- 6: Polk was the first President to try to present his war plans to Congress for approval, rather than asking them to independently debate and prepare a declaration of war.
- 7: Polk was very close to Andrew Jackson. They didn't call him Young Hickory for nothing, you know!
- 8, 9, and 10: The election of 1844 was ultimately decided by the State of New York, which Polk won by 5,100 votes. James Birney of the abolitionist Liberty Party pulled down 62,000 votes, many of which probably would have gone to the Whig candidate, former Kentucky Senator Henry Clay. Despite the closeness of the vote, Polk plowed ahead with his agenda as if he'd been coronated. And with great success, I might add.