Column/The preacher’s uncle

Published 12:00 am Sunday, October 29, 2006

Having a keen interest in presidential history, I have always ranked our seventh president, Andrew Jackson, affectionately referred to as “Old Hickory,” as being right up there with Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and

Theodore Roosevelt.

This column is about another outstanding president, James Knox Polk, who served as our country’s 11th president from 1845-1849. Other reasons for the timing of this piece-are that the 211th birthday anniversary (1795) of James Polk comes up on Nov. 2 – and I promised the great, great, great, great nephew of our 11th U.S. chief executive, that I would honor his namesake with a column around the time of the former president’s birthday.

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Many of

you know the excellent and very popular rector of Selma’s Historic St. Paul’s Episcopal Parish – the Rev. James K. Polk Van Zandt – and obviously it is president Polk, for whom our Rev. Polk Van Zandt is named. The Parish

rector is very proud of his

ancestor – and for good reason. President Polk, who proved to be an exceptionally strong and effective leader, is ranked by historians in the top 10 of all American presidents.

President-to-be Polk was born in North Carolina and was an honor graduate at the state university there. Later, as a young lawyer, he served in the Tennessee legislature and became a close friend and ally of our famous seventh president,

Andrew Jackson.

His nickname, “Young Hickory,”

came about thanks in good part to his being mentored by “Old Hickory” himself,

Andrew Jackson. Indeed, it has been suggested that the defining moment in the life of the then

27 year old James Polk came when he asked his esteemed mentor for advice on how to further his political career. “Stop this philandering!” Jackson said. “You must settle down as a sober married


At the time, the handsome young Polk was secretary of the Tennessee state senate, and he was very active socially with the ladies. However, Polk held Jackson – not particularly qualified as a marriage counselor – in such high esteem, he even heeded the general’s advice to pursue 19-year-old Sarah Childress, a young lady with a passion for politics.

As it turned out, Polk proposed marriage to Sarah, and she accepted on the promise that he would run for a seat in the state legislature and win. He did, and in 1822, James Polk and Sarah Childress were married. They would have no children, but Sarah played a very important role in her husband’s meteoric rise in politics.

James Knox Polk’s achievements as a politician were monumental, as he served seven terms in the U.S. House of representatives – four of those terms as Speaker of the House. After his years in the House, where he was a courageous and able debater,

he was elected governor of Tennessee.

With tremendous support from Andrew Jackson,


was the Democrats’ choice for president in 1844. The key issues, promoted by “Young Hickory,” involved territorial expansion all the way to the Pacific Ocean – a popular concept with the voters – and the theme of the campaign was a commitment to the Nation’s “Manifest Destiny.”

Polk won the Democrat

nomination on the ninth ballot, and he was elected president by a razor-thin margin, defeating Henry Clay, the distinguished congressman from Kentucky. James K. Polk had became the youngest

president – up until that time. He set down four major goals – (1) acceptable tariffs for both the North and the South; (2) establish a federal independent treasury; (3) settle the Oregon boundary; (4) acquire California. Texas had just been annexed, thanks to a great degree to Polk’s efforts.

The new president accomplished all of his goals, proving to be a masterful commander-in-chief, as he dispatched armies into Mexico, New Mexico and California – to secure his annexation plans – which added 500,000 square miles to the U.S. territories.

Other accomplishments during the Polk administration included the issuance of the first postage stamp, founding the U.S. Naval Academy, laying the first stone for the Washington Monument, the establishment of the Smithsonian Institute and having the first White House Thanksgiving Dinner, hosted by his wife Sarah.

President Polk, perhaps conscientious to a fault and almost literally working himself to death, died just three months after he left office – on June 15, 1849. President Harry S. Truman characterized James Polk perfectly:

“A Great President. Said What He Intended To Do and Did It.”

Nephew Polk Van Zandt has every right to be very, very proud of his uncle

James Knox Polk!

Byrd Looper is a regular columnist for The Times-Journal.