Wartime President James Polk
President Polk's personality traits have been the subject of much writing and speculation, since he was seen as lacking in charm and considered to be rather boring and without much charisma. Regardless, he nevertheless brought a great deal of energy to the presidency, the intensity of which has not been a feature of many of the former and future occupants of the White House. He was known for spending all of his energy attending to his role as president, toiling endlessly in order to meet his objectives. The days that he spent in office were frequently 12 hour-long days; during his presidency, he rarely left Washington DC, taking only one short vacation ensuring his presidency. His unwavering determination to accomplish his goals allowed him to complete an agenda that was so ambitious in four short years that it simply cannot be compared with any other president's term in office regarding successes within a short period of time.
Undoubtedly, President Polk's lasting legacy was the incredible amount of land that he was able to secure to become part of the country. The concept of Manifest Destiny was a deeply held mission for him. In addition, he was notable for being a president who believed strongly in the Monroe Doctrine, or the concept that the United States should be free from colonization and interference by the European nations. His effectiveness as a wartime commander-in-chief has been frequently contrasted with that of President James Madison, whose conduct of the War of 1812 was felt to be problematic and nowhere near as successful as President Polk's waging of the US-Mexican war .
Reviewing President James Polk's record as president indicates that he shared many qualities and actions with modern-day presidents. For example, the secretiveness, evasiveness, and his relatively poor social skills are reminiscent of Richard Nixon; like Nixon, Polk also enacted significant and progressive reforms within the government that enhanced the lives of the citizenry, such as Nixon's establishment of the EPA and President Polk's founding of the Department of the Interior. Similar to Lyndon Johnson, Polk aggressively waged a war with relatively little regard for the impact it would have on the country as a whole, with that exceedingly unpopular war remaining his legacy, despite the fact that he accomplished a tremendously successful and positive domestic agenda. Like President George W. Bush, Polk waged an unpopular war that ultimately divided the country, and acted in ways that would strengthen the executive branch of government, while being absolutely committed to pushing his agenda through by any means, including the use of an inordinate amount of executive orders designed to bypass Congress to pursue his agenda.
President Polk was not a popular figure in American history, a fact that may account for the lack of recognition applied to him as a good, possibly great, president. Evidence of this is that his name and accomplishments are almost unrecognizable to the great majority of Americans, except for students of history. His role in the Mexican-American war, despite the successes of the conflict, has been criticized as having been a provocation of an intentional war of conquest that caused damage to the relationship with Mexico over the long-term. In addition, his intense determination to secure Texas and California played a significant role in poor relations between the North and South, which resulted in a growing mistrust, culminating in the waging of the Civil War.
Personality traits have clearly played a role in the lack of acknowledgment and admiration for President Polk's accomplishments; he appears to have been a serious, humorless and isolated man who preferred politics to social relationships. Accounts of his behavior towards others indicates that he dreaded social occasions and in fact, forbade dancing in the White House during his tenure. As stated previously, he was relatively unskillful in matters of compromise and negotiation. All of those factors, perhaps, explain why James Polk does not typically appear on any of the lists of the greatest U.S. Presidents, despite the remarkable achievements that he accomplished in merely one term. When he left office, he died only three months later suffering from cholera, exhausted, underappreciated and undervalued. It is only when examining his accomplishments through a prism more than 150 years later, that one can begin to appreciate exactly how much James Polk achieved towards the development of the United States and its ultimate boundaries.
Charisma tends to play an extremely important role in the election of, as well is the legacies of American presidents. Although James Polk was clearly an effective wartime leader and commander-in-chief who succeeded in both foreign and domestic programs, fulfilling nearly every campaign promise that he had made prior to his election, he has continued to be relatively unknown. In order to make sense of this, one must acknowledge that his personal traits, which were not particularly appealing, most likely contributed to the lack of notoriety that he has achieved as a great president. Despite the tremendous expansion of land that he was able to secure for the United States, as well as the very ambitious domestic agenda that he was able to pass, he continues to be one of the least known presidents in American history. Although he only served one term, that term was full of action and successes that impacted the lives of real Americans in major ways, yet it comes time to identify who are the greatest presidents, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt are invariably on the list. James Polk is typically rather far down those lists, despite his incredible record of accomplishments.
Yet, it is legitimate to consider the ways in which his personality hampered his popularity and effectiveness. For example, his inability to understand the impact that the issue of slavery would have during the westward expansion of the United States reflected real deficits in his ability to understand human nature. He appeared to have a lack of interest in matters other than those connected with Manifest Destiny, such as understanding the role that modernization would play in the continuing development of the country. In sum, President James Polk was an effective wartime president whose personal foibles prevented him from being considered great. He was true to his word, keeping his campaign promises, but unfortunately his lack of interpersonal skills, and other personality traits continue to hamper his legacy.