“Who is James K. Polk?” If you’re asking this question to yourself right now, you’re not alone. In fact, “Who is James K. Polk?” was a slogan Polk’s political rivals used to mock him in the 1844 Presidential election. This made sense at the time; despite serving as Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1835 to 1839 and Governor of Tennessee from 1839 to 1841, Polk lacked the dynamic personality that defines many of America’s great Presidents. Yet a late compromise in the Democratic Party and the changing mood of the American people thrust Polk from a failed Gubernatorial candidate in Tennessee to the White House in less than a year.
Who is James K. Polk? He’s America’s first dark horse President. He’s the Commander-in-Chief who oversaw the annexation of the southern portion of the Oregon territory, the admission of Texas into the United States, and the invasion of Mexico that forced the Mexican government to cede about half of its territory to the United States in 1848 (you know New Mexico? It used to be part of old Mexico). He’s the man who may have done more to transform the United States in a single term than any other President in American history.
And, strangely enough, he’s also the man whose corpse has been dug out of the ground more times than any other President. His current resting spot in Nashville is Polk’s third grave, but he may be moving again in the near future.
So how did Polk go from relative obscurity to President of the United States in such a short period of time? Why does his place in Americans’ minds fall so far short of his impact on American history? And why are lawmakers in Tennessee considering moving Polk’s body for a fourth time more than 150 years after his death? In this episode of The Road to Now we answer these questions and more in our conversation with the Curator of the James K. Polk Home & Museum, Tom Price.