tv The Presidency James K. Polks Politics Times CSPAN August 13, 2019 4:04pm-5:44pm EDT
own words." david troyier, his book is "the heartbeat of wounded knee." sharon robinson talks about her book, "child of the dream." rick atkinson, author of "the british are coming." and thomas malone, founding director of the m.i.t. center for collective intelligence discusses his book, "superminds." the national book festival live saturday august 31st at 10:00 a.m. eastern on "book tv" on c-span2. "american history tv" continues our feature on the politics and times of president james polk right now with a look at his relationship with previous president martin van buren and his role as a wartime chief executive. this panel was part of a conference at the university of tennessee that marked the completion of a 60-year project to assemble and edit president polk's papers. this is an hour and a half.
i'm john pinheiro. i teach college in grand rapids, michigan. this roundtable is known as the many sides of james k. polk, so we're going to explore five of the sides apparently of james k. polk. i'd like to start then with our zbro ducti introductions in just a moment. what we'll each do is speak for 15 minutes. no more. maybe a little less would be allowed. and then we'll -- we might ask questions of each other. a dcouple questions as a roundtable then we'll open it for the audience and should have substantial time for question and answer at the end. first i'd like to introduce mark cheathem who's going to speak on polk, van vurburen and democrat leadership in 1844. dr. cheathem is professor of history at cumberland university and project director of the papers of martin van buren. his most recent book is "the coming of democracy: presidential campaigning in the age of jackson." all right.
>> thank you, john, and thank you for all, all for showing up. hopefully no one naps in the post-lunch euphoria and thank you to michael in particular for putting this together. i want to thank zach kinslow, you heard him speak this morning. when he was an intern last summer, he did research on the polk/van buren correspondence which was very helpful for this paper, so, thank you, zach. i also want to lower expectations. this is my first foray into giving my thoughts on a book i'm writing for the 1844 election for the "university press" of kansas so there are a lot of holes i uncovered as i was writing and i didn't attempt to fill all those holes in, so maybe you can help me with that. in any case, the 1844 presidential campaign marked a transition in the democratic party leadership as martin van buren ceded control of the party
to james k. polk. the two men worked together during the party's early years and appeared poised at least to some to perhaps inhabit the ticket of the democratic ticket in 1844. van buren's unwillingness to agree to the immediate annexation of texas, however, signaled his demise as the presumptive candidate for the democratic party and opened the door for polk who was considered the front-runner for the vice presidential slot to the top of the ticket at the party's national convention in baltimore. while van buren supported polk in 1844 campaign, his ability to influence the president-elect's cabinet picks ended their relationship. so just a little bit of background on polk and van buren, they both entered congress in the 1820s. van buren before polk. they seemed to have had a relationship that was based largely on the loyalty to jackson and that emerges most significantly in the correspondence during jackson's
second term, during the bank war which we heard about from tom cowens and the 1836 campaign. during van buren's presidency, polk gave van buren advice on his response to the panic of 1837 and also gave van buren advice on indian removal, polk was in favor of it. in any case, as we approach the 1840 election, van buren appe appeared to be the democratic nomin nominee heading into that campaign. polk e emergenmerged as a possi presidential nominee in the run-up to 1840. particularly after polk won the gubernatorial election in tennessee in 1839. polk and his allies begin to float his name as a possible replacement for richard m. johnson who is van buren's sitting vice president. johnson, if you know anything about him, had some issues in his personal life that led some democrats to question place on
the ticket in 1840 during which was going do be a very -- anyway, the stars seemed to be aligning for polk, things fell apart very quickly after the whig national convention. the whigs nominated williamson, war hero, which made johnson's own wartime experience and heroism in the war of 1812 much more important for the democrats than polk's experience as speaker of the house and as democratic congressman and as tennessee's governor. ultimately, the democratic convention decided not to nominate a vice presidential candidate. in '36, there had been a very contentious vice presidential consent so they decided to just avoid that. polk eventually withdrew his name. he did campaign for van buren in 1840. campaigned across the state. did seemingly a very effective job, but unfortunately, as jackson said, the whigs thwarted
van buren's attempts to carry the jacksonian mantle for second term. van buren looked to run again, because he was no quitter, he undertook a journey to several southern and western states including tennessee. he, of course, spent time with jackson at the hermitage and van buren made his way down to columbia to visit with polk and other democratic allies in lower middle tennessee. while staying with polk, polk and his friends expected van buren would discuss the '44 presidential election and they hoped that, perhaps, he would even ask polk to join him on the ticket. that did not happen. i solemnly assure you, polk wrote, that not a word either verbally or in writing has ever up to this hour passed between us on the subject, nor, polk said, had he heard of any conversations to that effect having heard elsewhere during the tennessee leg of van buren's trip.
ultimately, van buren's visit to tennessee hurt both men because it allowed whigs and jealous democrats to claim the two orchestrated a political agreement that undercut their commitment to a popular convention. even though there's no evidence of that. as the calendar turned to 1843, it appeared that van buren remained the presumptive choice of most democrats in '44 but not all was well within the democratic party. some democrats blamed their problems on van buren's administration and began to look to louis cass as a more viable option. john c. can hul lingerelhoun wa the party. quote, there may be a clash between the friends of van buren and calhoun that cannot be settled. in that case, he told polk your prospect as a compromise is best. the friends of v.b., van buren, et cetera, are democrats and could with great propriety agree
upon you. unfortunately, polk lost the gubernatorial election of 1841 and then he lost again in 1843 which you would think would be a bad omen for his vice presidential chances. and, indeed, some tennessee democrats blamed van buren for polk's loss and began moving into the cass camp. what's interesting is that some of those democrats also proposed simply replacing van buren with cass and keeping polk on the second slot on the democratic ticket in 1844. despite the downturn in democratic fortunes in the state of tennessee, he assured van buren he could still count on tennessee's support in '44. although jackson initially wavered in his support of polk's vice presidential chances after his august '43 defeat, by the next month he was back to reassuring van buren that he needed polk to win tennessee. when the tennessee general assembly met later that fall, polk personally pressured allies and acquaintances to support his
vice presidential shot. his strategy was to have tennessee democrats endorse him for the vice presidency but not to issue a premference for the top of the ticket. of course, the implication was if van buren wanted tennessee support, he needed to make sure that polk was his running mate. the tennessee democratic convention that met in november 4 '43 followed polk's strategy. 12 of the 1 delegates to the baltimore convention were pro-polk. as the new year dawned, van buren remained the front-runner in many democrats' minds. two weeks into the new year van buren actually wrote jackson, quote, the prospects are now we should have a very harmonious convention, poor guy, in respect to the presidential candidate and quite certain the vice president will be decided and best upon in a very good spirit, this all should be, and i have no doubt will be satisfied. if van buren looked carefully, however, he would have noticed cracks in his support remained and, in fact, were growing
wider. cave johnson, a very close friend of polk and a very close adviser in '44, told poke, quote, vance cause is not so flattering as at the commencement. the abolition and tariff will both injure him. van buren was not an abolitionist in '44, really not an abolitionist any time. another topic. johnson noted they hoped to show van burenenites were opposed to texas, add to a list of reasons to oppose his nomination. polk agreed with this opinion that the abolition agitation is now as it has ever been political in its object and design, end quote, and regreeted southern democratic opposition to van buren's nomination. still, his intentiattention ear '44 remained primarily on the vice presidential nomination. as spring approached several charges emerged including
richard m. johnson. lewis cass. and, of course, john c. calhoun who never seems to go away. more importantly, the death of secretary of state abel p. upshire aboard the "u.s.s. princeton" changed everything regarding the convention and its nominees. tyler's appointment of john c. calhoun as secretary of state led to revival of the slavery question and jeopardized upshire's careful behind the scenes work on annexation. calhoun had already planned to make texas annexation the main issue to use against presumptive whig nominee henry clay in '44 and now he had tremendous power to shape not only the focus of the general campaign but also of the democrats' nomination process. in case you don't know, van buren and calhoun did not like one another. so calhoun is looking to torpedo van buren's nomination. already seen as a campaign issue, annexation became even more important in the public eye. van buren began to receive queries from individuals and groups of democrats across the country asking for his opinion
on annexation and specifically immediate annexation. and he chose to respond to one particular request by mississippi representative william henry hammot. van buren's letter to hammot which was published and written in van buren's usual meandering and ponderous manner, if you haven't read any of the letters, not only is the handwriting terrible but he goes on and on and on and on much like my students do when they're trying to reach their word count. but in any case, van buren's letter to hammot outlined his opposition to the immediate annexation of texas, taking a stance against annexation play have pleased some of his friends but doomed his chances at receiving the democrats' presidential nomination. in april, jackson asked polk to visit him, sorry, in may, jackson asked polk to visit him at the hermitage which he did do. during his meeting with jackson, the general pronounced to polk immediate annexation is not only important but indispensable.
van buren in jackson's estimation had committed what jackson called a fatal error. jackson believed that the democrats needed to nominate a solid annexation man from the southwest, and in his view, polk fit the bill. polk surprised at jackson's vehement -- he told kay johnson that tennessee should support van buren in baltimore. polk proclaimed, i have stood by mr. v.b. and will stand by him as long as there is hope. nevertheless, polk said if van buren's efforts failed, then perhaps he could become the top choice for the democrats. he was in his friends' hands, polk said, can use my name any way they think proper at baltimore. the democratic national convention did not go van buren's way. the delegates chose to institute the two-thirds rule, meant van buren who did possess the majority of the vote, didn't possess two-thirds, was not able to win the nomination.
on the eighth ballot, polk's name appeared as a contender for the presidency and on the ninth ballot, he became the choice of the democrats. following polk's nomination, he and van buren did not directly communicate during the '44 campaign that van buren publicly did support his party's ticket. heimarily in new york. van buren was trying to help elevate his son, john, in new york politics so part of his machinations were to help his son. polk's victory over clay in november provided an opportunity for reconciliation between him and van buren, however, but that did not happen. the two fell out over polk's cabinet choices and if you read the correspondence between polk and van buren from january through early march of 45s '45, get a sense, not able to force
polk to make the choices and get a sense of the frustration polk had with a man who lost the presidency and couldn't even get the nomination telling him what to do as he's about to come into office. i won't give you all the details but i want to give you one example, this comes later in the process. essentially, what van buren wanted was he wanted new york to have the top cabinet post which was secretary of state and polk vacillates and wants to choose treasury for new york and, again, lots of things going on there. as polk was traveling, van buren sends more and more advice and he tells polk you need to choose benjamin butler who was a good friend, former law partner of van buren's. you need to choose him for the state department. so on february 22nd, polk wrote van buren about that post. and he said that he had the letters in hand but the landscape had changed. he said upon wririding here and
taking a survey of the whole ground, polk wrote, i found great difficulties interposed that necessitated other appointments. eventually as you heard earlier today, buchanan will serve as secretary of state. but polk still wants van buren's advice but only for the war department. so he asked van buren, do you want butler for the war department or do you want william r. marcie? marcie was on the other side of the democratic party in new york. he was on the anti-van buren side. van buren doesn't want marcie. writes back, tells polk, your vacillation caused me embarrassment, a little pain and makes other suggestions but not marcie. so what's really interesting without even waiting for van buren to reply, polk moved ahead. and he wound up appointing marcie after butler declined to take the war department and as polk explained it to van buren, if i have committed an error, i can only say it was unintentional. the changes of positions of the
members of the cabinet seem to be imperative upon me. and he promises to send a fuller explanation and what's interesting as the polk editors noted, and as you can see on the library of congress' copy, on the back of polk's letter promising a fuller explanation van buren wrote, the promised explanations have not been made. what happens after this polk through an sbe neintermediary - two men do not correspond except for two letters that polk sends to van buren containing two annual messages. van buren writes back two very quick notes saying i received these and that's the end of their correspondence. i don't know that polk lost much sleep over it. van buren was very bitter about this. and eventually in '48 as many of you well know will not only be nominated by the barnburners faction in new york for the presidency, but also by the other party.
van buren eventually does go back to the democrats but at that point, polk is dead and thus ends their relationship. thank you. [ applause ] >> i would like to introduce now kelly houston jones to speak on polk and the business of slavery. dr. jones is the assistant professor of history at arkansas tech. she writes about the history slavery mostly in the trans-mississippi south. welcome. >> i would also like to thank the conference organizers and thank zachary kinslow. i am probably the least polk person here. i come to this from an interest
that was begun when i was researching the history of slavery in arkansas. and, by the way, since we're on camera, a wary land, slavery on the ground in arkansas" will be published by the university of georgia press, get that little plug in there. one of the things i noticed about the patterns in that history was a prevalence of an s absentee-owned plantations on the side arkansas side of the mississippi river. when i was having conversations with students, zachary kinslow, said, you know, this guy knows polk, okay, he said, you know, james k. polk was an absentee planter. somewhere i knew, thought of polk as a slave holder, wasn't really on my radar and would fit this and be a documented fit for this interest that i had. as i explored this, i learned a
whole bunch about a lot of polks who were buying plantations in arkansas, in north louisiana, and, you know, of course, in mississippi. so that's sort of how i ended up in this. so this conference has given me a chance to kind of indulge in this, like, sort of new side interest that i have on absentee plantations. now, this talk would probably be better titled, i probably should have called it "the polks and the business of slavery," right, because havery little of it is about james k. polk, himself, but it's just about that really tangled family tree of slaveholding polks that we learned about this morning. so james k. polk is part of this history of absentee planters. i call them 19th century portfolio planters. we think of portfolio plantations as sort of a 20th century agricultural
development. i'm trying to be a little provocative on purpose. this is a portfolio investment. if you never go to that plantation, sometimes the overseer is begging them, please come and see how good things are going, right, because i need a contract for next year. a lot of times these guys aren't going. they don't really know what's going on. it's an investment, you know, that's what it is. so what i found in looking at these patterns is this is actually a much more extensive part of this history than i had given credence to in my research. there are quite a few of these absentee holdings. it is a little difficult to find out when it's an absentee-held plantation like some of them are more obvious, you know, than others. if people have questions about, like, what i defined as absentee or not, we can sort of hash that out. in my preliminary research on this, i found in southeast arkansas, there are -- i used a conservative estimate looking at the census, about 12% of the
enslaved people in that county were on absentee-owned plantations, like, okay, that's not huge, but i'm getting a sense that there's a significant part of the story that maybe we're missing. you know, there are places where there is no white family in the big house. there is no big house. right? there's an overseer's little house and that's the end of it. now, this pattern has been more documented by historians when it comes to natchez. i don't know if you guys have noticed but slavery historians really love natchez. okay? it's all about natchez. people are living there and owning these plantations across the river. that's a little bit more well documented. i found for sure that about 24%, 25%, of the enslaved people in those, there in louisiana are held by absentee owners across the river. but anthony kay estimated it's
probably about half. okay? of them. a little bit of a different situation because of the proximity, okay, and so what i'd like to do by exploring the polks and stuff is kind of position columbia, tennessee, into this, okay? a planter who lives somewhere like columbia, tennessee, and owns a plantation in southeast arkansas, that really is absent. right? like, that really does sort of, like, change the landscape. so we're finding that the more i dig into it, the more polks i find who are taking part in this -- in this kind of stuff. and it's a network coming out of columbia, tennessee, that, you know, polk and friends are involved in. so giddy and pillow, for example, you know, is one of these guys. we think of gideon pillow in other contexts. i'm revisiting people i thought i knew in the context of absentee plantation. that's the network james k. polk is plugged into. that's the side of polk that i'm looking to show you today.
one of the most successful of these polk relatives, these are, like, cousins, and i was already intimidated by the polk family tree as tcheit was, after this morning's presentation, i learned the two go-to books are wrong a lot, i'm just, like, so, just bear with me, if i'm not getting some of these connections exactly right. in fact, i might just leave, sort of let you guess. so alan j.polk is one of the most successful of these planters. he had 78 slaves in phillips county, arkansas, in 1860. $100,000 in personal estate which is huge, you guy, at that time. $50,000 in real estate mi. his wife, anna polk, is there, and there's a family with the overseer on the place. okay? and so he's one of these planters who has sort of a home-base plantation but he has other plantations in other spots and that's a fairly common part of the trend, you know, that i'm seeing. some of these planters will
actually spend time in different parts of the year at the different plantations and some of them never go at all. and they don't want to have anything to do with it. so alan j. polk is one of these really rich planters, sometimes he lives in dlcolumbia. sometimes he lives in nk orth caroli carolina. sometimes he's in mississippi. sometimes he's in arkansas. okay? that's the polk network that we're talking about here. he probably also has a plantation in tunica county, mississippi. there were 200 enslaved people on that place. there's another place in the same county that i think might be him but i'm not sure because they're doing the initials, a.j., so it's, you know, i'm trying to keep it sort of conservative and not put it down unless i know for sure. but i suspect. i sort of smell alan j. polk on that other plantation. george w. polk, brother of leonodis polk and son of colonel william polk, lived in murray
county. he also had 88 slaves in chico county, arkansas. didn't live there, at least not all the time. married into the hilliard family. he and john polk were talking about one of the wealthy planter families in southeast arkansas. and may have also had some mississippi plantations as well. there's a hamilton polk also who's got a large operation in bullard county, mississippi, and may have as many as three that he's got. one of those seems to be a joint venture. we see james k. polk did this with his brother-in-law, pool your resources, purchase a plantation, purchase enslaved people to put on it and use that as your investment. but these polk investments are not always absenteabsentee. sometimes they begin absentee, i suspect, but then they -- the family will end up sort of moving there. that's one of the things if you're not familiar with the history of the trans-mississippi south, people thought arkansas
was the edge of the earth. people still think arkansas is the edge of the earth. so you know in 1860 that they thought, you know, that was the case. so, for example, one of james k. polk's cousins, i'm just going to use the very vague word, cousin, you know, susan polk, she marries a planter named kenneth reiner. sometimes they live on the plantation. sometimes they don't. he sometimes blames her, she doesn't want to go there, she won't go past memphis, supposedly, you know, sometimes they will -- people refuse, they'll invest but refuse to actually settle there or it takes them some time. you know, to sort of pull the trigger and move to arkansas. okay, to the other side of the river. now, one of these patriarchs of a branch of the polk family did make his home in phillips county, arkansas, and was very prosperous. william wilson "stingy bill" polk.
i'm really excited about that. if i'm right about this, he's james k. polk's uncle. we can fight it out. you can all fix it for me if i'm wrong about that. apparently the family knows him as stingy bill. he's not that stingy because he loaned the president-elect $9,000. that $9,000 is created on the backs of enslaved people in phillips county, arkansas, in the 1840s. okay? 1830s and 1840s. and so he had been in murray krkr county, tennessee. he moved to hardeman county, tennessee. by 1840, he's in phillips county, arkansas. i'm pulling some of this straight from that, you know, polk correspondence. and according to those notes, okay, he lends this $9,000 to james k. polk then he kind of not so subtly hints around that he would like an appointment
with thomas polk with the post office in missouri or somewhere. this is where i get a little hung up because i'm not sure, his son is named thomas, there's a bunch of other thomas polks who he's trying to do favors for here. but the point is, that's the network that james k. polk is plugged into it, right? it's land speculation, it's slaves, it's political power. i'm kind of giving sort of the epilogue of one of the presentations we heard this morning about the expansion of land holdings and consolidation of power by the polk family. in earlier years. he died -- stingy bill died in october 1848 buried in phillips county, arkansas. that plantation is inherited, you know, by his children and they -- at least one of them sticks around and continues to do very well. if you follow the particular holding through the census, it looks like it shrinks as far as a number of enslaved people is down to people. that's because thomas has got to give some to his siblings, right? so the family is still definitely benefiting from this.
so i say all this to say that we've got to understand polk as part of this network. okay? and one of the things that i have noticed earlier -- i sort of, you know, peeking here and there on scholarship about polk is that sometimes we write about him as sort of a product of his time, not as a creator of that system. that's one of the things i enjoyed about this conference is to see that's being fixed, right? polk the expansionist. the polk family is sort of part of this expansion into the old southwest. and so that -- i encourage us to keep thinking in that way. james k. polk and his family as creators of this slave system, right, he's of this generation that learns how to get the most out of the old southwest as possible. he gets it from, you know, those -- that kind of work from his dad, from his father's cousin, colonel william polk, also, you know, they speculate in land, they diverse, you know,
as an expansion politically, right, as somebody who is part of actively part of creating -- roots of american capitalism are in american -- the growth of american slavery, you know, in this time period, then we've got to look at james k. polk, we've got to look at columbia, tennessee, right? that's where -- they're sort of launching this assault, if you will, to sort of take over and create these networks in the old southwest. so that's just a little bit of what i've been thinking about those things. thanks. [ applause ] >> i'll never forget chunky jack. i'd like to introduce now dr. rachel shelden. dr. shelden is associate professor of history at the university of oklahoma right now but will soon be moving to penn
state to direct the richards civil war era center. she's the author of "washington brotherhood: politics, social life, and the coming of the civil war" which received honorable mention for the wiley silver prize for the best first book on the american civil war. please welcome dr. sh erelden. thank you. [ applause ] >> thank you so much. thank you, all, for being here. thank you, michael, for inviting me. this has been really educational so far. i'm really enjoying my time. i hope all of you are, too. i'm not going to talk a long time. i promise to stay under 15 minutes. but i want to spend the time i do have talking about a member of polk's inner circle that you may not know much about. supreme court associate justice john catrin. i heard a lot of people today that referenced letters to john
catrin but without any context about who john catrin was. he doesn't get the same kind of attention that some of his supreme court contemporaries like joseph story or roger tawny do, but it's a mistake to overlook this man because he was a critical behind the scenes player in the mid 19th century and particularly in james k. polk's life. getting to know catrin helps us to better understand how the supreme court fits into the political culture of the mid 19th century. now, we're lucky to have daniel walker howe here as part after this conference. i'd like to borrow professor howe's definition of political culture to help explain what i mean. in his really important book, "the political culture of the american whigs," he talks about the unspoken or rarely spoken system of beliefs, attitudes, modes of operation, and especially methods of solving problems underlying american politics.
this is the key to understanding political culture. now, maybe you're saying to yourself, but we're about to talk about a supreme court justice. why are we talking about political culture as opposed to judicial culture? how does political culture apply here? certainly, court observers and many of the justices today would have you believe that the court is apolitical, right? that it is not involved in the political system whatsoever. i will leave the current system and questions about that maybe to a later time. in terms of the 19th century, we're going to talk about the supreme court in the 19th century and james k. polk's era in particular, we need to completely erase the idea of an apolitical supreme court from our minds. reframing the catrin/polk relationship from the perspective of political culture, those unspoken or rarely spoken beliefs, attitudes, and methods, gives us a much more meaningful picture of how the federal government operated in the mid 19th century.
so there are a number of elements that make up this political culture of the court in this period, but as i talk about polk and catrin's relationship, i want you to keep three in mind. the first element i might call fluidity. governance was just messier in the mid 19th century. and what i mean by this is that because of the nature of political networks in this period, there was considerable overlap and less hardened boundaries between the branches of government, the levels of government, and political organizations. so seeing the supreme court in the context of this more fluid political system helps to make sense of the justices' behavior in this period and the relationship between polk and catrin clearly illustrates this. the second element we might talk about as ethics. now, judicial ethics of the kind we imagine today did not exist in the 19th century.
we didn't really start writing tretuses. until the end of the 20th century with the professionalization of the law. this does not mean this was a period of intense corruption where anything went. instead, we have to recognize that judges policed their own behavior in the context of political ethics. a much more discussed concept in this period. so, as a result, judges behaved in ways that we often think as political today as out of the bounds of what was judicially appropriate but that seemed perfectly appropriate to americans at the time. so catrin is going to engage in deeply political behavior from our modern perspective in his relationship with polk, but this remained purely ethical from both men's perspectives and other americans. the final element is sociability. as many of you know, the political culture of the mid 19th century was also an
intensely social experience. political negotiation, networking, and alliances were played out not only in official political spaces like the capitol and the white house but also in social ones. in boardinghouses and hotels. at parties and dinners. and even through the complexities of washington etiquet etiquette. to understand how members of the supreme court fit into american politics, we have to keep this in mind that social spaces are where a lot of political discussion happened. and, again, polk and catrin's social experiences and interactions serve as a perfect model for seeing this. so as a result of these ethical, fluid, and social considerations, what really matters to understanding the way judges fit in the political culture of the period is to think about networks. political networks. to think about how men like polk and catrin operated as part of a deeply personal political system.
okay. so let me tell you a little bit about polk and catrin. the two men were actually distantly related through marriage. they're wives were both from the childress family. i learned from amy greenberg last night that they were maybe third cousins. little unsure. but the catrins and polks became close. they spent ample time together both in tennessee and in washington. john catrin was actually close with both polks, as i'm sure amy will discuss later. he was even a confidant of sarah's. and these families retained their relationships while catrin sat on the supreme court and polk sat in congress and the white house. so critically, the relationship between the polks and the catrins like many political families of the era, was deep-seeded, deeply political, and deeply partisan. polk and catrin were also connected through the politics at tennessee where as we heard they were both strong allies of andrew jackson. polk helped get jackson elected
to the senate which earned him a political friend for life. and jackson had rewarded catrin's political friendship with a seat on the supreme court in 1837. and political friendship is the key phrase there because politics is how presidents decided on their supreme court nominees. you may know that 19th century justices did not have the same kinds of credentials as they do today. state and federal judges often moved seamlessly between traditional political positions, such as state representative or lieutenant governor, then into the judiciary then back into those political positions. and so as a result, there were really no feeder courts from which presidents could find a farm team of suitable supreme court judges as they often do today. instead, political experience was often the best indicator for who was going to join the supreme court. 19th century presidents
typically made supreme court nominations squarely based on partisan reasoning rewarding political friends with a job in the judiciary. to give you some sense of this, in 1844, when polk received the nomination for president, catrin was serving on the bench with eight other men. he was the only justice of these nine who did not have experience working in some other official political office. whether executive or legislative. and one of only two to have never served in the federal government in of virginia. this somewhat matched catrin's political acumen, however. he did have very clear political connections. in short, catrin was very involved in the newspaper
business. now, as many of you know newspapers in the 19th century were run by political organizations. members of a political party would come together and publish a paper dedicated to the policies of a particular party. in fact, a political party couldn't really operate without the use of a newspaper in part because they had to print ballots for elections. knowing this helps us to situate catrin's influence in the political world in tennessee and the united states because catrin was a critical backer financially of the nashville union, win was a paper dedicated to democratic politics, very involved in helping getting martin van buren elected in 1836. cathrin not only helped support the paper financially, but he also occasionally wrote editorials for the paper. the critical space for political opinions could be fleshed out. i wonder what would happen if we found out that some modern supreme court justices were writing editorials in their home
state papers. might be kind of interesting. so ultimately, then, the nomination of supreme court justices was not simply about constitutional principles. these men were overwhelmingly commitments, not their judicial service. did not bring an end to the chose relationships. ed the, we may be uncomfortable with a justice speaking open about politics after assuming his role on the supreme bench. it raised no eyebrows in the mid 19th century. it was no surprise given ka the -- given theory with polk, they had a relationship. the two men often discussed congressional legislation, sometimes it had to do with bills dealing with the junidgme
di -- and sometimes not. when a jfudiciary bill came up for discussion in the house, they implored him to convince polk to get rid of it and make sure it did not pass. this political maneuvering was possible because they lived together in washington when they both served there. that may seem odd. but in the 1840s and 50s, they lived in the same hotels and houses as members of congress. so there was nothing amiss when they had collaborated before supreme court's session. in addition to sharing living
quarters, they attended dinners and parties and socialized regularly and i showed in the first book, the kind of conversation that happened at the dinner parties was dripping with political importance. they talked politics all the time in social spaces. the two men continued to discuss federal poll particulars and state level offices and issues. and katrin visited with the polks. they spent a few months in washington and the remainder of their time riding circuits. so of course, going to the courts on their particular circuit. >> he spent several weeks a year hearing case there is will and while there, he visited with the
polks and they discussed strategy with the two of them and otherer political allies. when he returned for the supreme term, they wrote about political gossip and strategy are from his seat in the supreme court chamber to james and sarah. the other critical activity that katrin engaged in was president making. initially katrin pushed for polk's vice presidentsy. katrin quickly discovered that he a chance to get polk in the first chair. so he strategyized to promote his place on the ticket. once nominated he could rely on him to be one of the strongest advocates on the ground. he worked in his contacts in nashville and washington to
affect polk's nomination and he opens his house to james and sarah to serve as a political parlor, to entertain allies and essentially campaign. he and other allies worked to drop policy ideas and exchange thoughts on the role. while we may feel uncomfortable with the poloticing. it was small potatoes in that time. the line between the federal, judicial, and executive departments was so blurry in this per, that several of katrin's brother judges went beyond advocating for a political friend and just ran for office themselves. half of the justices are interested in being president.
he visited polk at his office and was known to sit with the postpoth thepresident, he parked in a seat in polk's office and people would come in and talk to polk about the various bills and katrin would weigh in from his seat in the room. in the evening, they dined together, sometimes with other members of the cabinet. cabinet officials and congressmen and sometimes in more intimate settings and in polk's years as congressman. they talked openly in the spaces. i'm giving you a sketch of polk and katrin's relationship. as a window in the 19th century. i want to say, if you can see
their relationship as representative and normal rather than unique and unethical. we can better understand how americans of that time envisioned the role of judges in the federal government and more general in essence, we have to stop thinking of the 19th century court as outside the political system and rather, as an integral part of not just the judicial decision making, but also the politics of the era. thank you very much. >> time to introduce our fearsless leader. john is a professor of history, his book is the award-winning missionaries of republicanism.
when i think of the series, especially with a small college and our travel budget, it's neh, in an nrpc funded project that helps out a bit. so, i want give those a plug since it will end up on c-span, which is also funded. the title is james kpolk as war president. he oversaw the mexican american war. it was one of the most successful military campaigns in the 19th century. my goal with the brief talk, which is based on a longer heesy of mine, is to assess polk's presence as a war president.
today, i'm interested in his effectiveness. the relevant question is, did he help or hinder the war effort, with his temperment and micro management and partnership much. he was a grand strategist that understood that good war time leadership is also tending to domestic considerations like politics, public opinion and he recognized the dangers of two fanatical. and exceptionalism. this astuned him to the war. he for saw the religion environment and he saw allies in the u.s. congress. and assessed the commanders and decided how best to quote conquer a piece. he to try to tamp down intense
partisanship, including his own. he did it successfully. a president's war-time leadership is not measured by how with well he commands a war effort. but also by he responds to politicinging. a democrat may hold a higher rank than general win field scott, and he made no major political step. he received everything that he requested from congress, inspite of wig and native american party resistance. more on how he dealt with it, he followed james madison's model where civil liberties were concernedment polk resisted the temptation to curve -- in the
nail of civil liberties. during the war. polk never strayed from his goal of securing california, an accomplishment that would open the country to pacific trade and keep the coast out of the british hands. it was a hope that mexico could retreat and when it did not happen, he made a decision. he to lead and did so, be convincing a cabinet that taking the fight to mexico would be more fruitful than defending california and new mexico while waiting for mexico to recognize the conquest. polk, argues bauer, "had an entirely unrealistic view of the war," once it came, because he thought california could be
gained quickly with little effort. he cites, one of polk's main advisers. he said that they were full of peaceful men. and it was an instrument of straight craft. "never were men less imbued with military spirit," ben ton said. now, benton should be said had his sights on the high military post. he wanted to be lieutenant general. doing that with would mark the reappearance of the rank for the first time since 1798. that was when george washington briefly held that. he would only serve if he could be scott's superior. so, i think his criticism of polk's lack of marshall spirit which bauer seems to take at
face value, musting led in light of his arrogance and ambition. polk arrived with a good grasp of the strategy and foresaw difficulties that his generals the not. within limits powers, he tried to prevent the war from taking on an overtly he -- he never waivered. he did gradual escalate the mexican war, but not out of political considerations, he did it out of frustration. hit limited goals never changed only his tactics. the desire to wage war in the most limited way possible still
was with one's objectives is not a bad predelection a war-time president. he was confident he could get a war on the cheap, to say, he is almost every other american president that led the country in to war. with the exception of roosevelt and wilson. prior to the civil war, presidents, governors and congress all played a role in fielding regiments and appointing officers. this process was politicized long before polk took office. it's critical -- or politicalizing in terms of policy and war-of time goals. his two leading generals, zachary taylor and winfield scott were wigs and polk did not dislike scott because he was a wig. didn't hurt, that was not the
only reason. the to men disagreed on strategy and tactics. what scott understand that polk did not, it would take a lot of time to mobilize and motivate volunteers. polk thought he was too ploding to gain the big picture. which was california and a treaty and excluded, reare main engine washington city and taking the time to plot the perfect war against mexico. to his credit, and much to his own dismay, polk new scott was the best general in the united states. this does not mean of course that polk trusted scott, he did no but he was willing to use him to win the war before finally discarding him amid a false conspiracy. once the army controlled mexico city.
thanks to his november 1846 letter to general edmond gains. in the gains letter will. taylor criticizes polk and scott, and criticizes scott's strategy and declares the value of anyworth, quote the amount of blood and treasure which must be expended. in letter convinced polk beyond in any doubt that taylor was a disloyal general. the only thing keeping the president from removing taylor was the general's popularity following buena vista. polk zumd that his generals operated on the same democratic pop pop list noengs attention did he. in such an atmosphere would it
the not be unwise to appoint whigs voe sifrly denounced by the same whigs casting votes in favor of declaring war. it is best to appraise polk in the rational skoiss a president might make given the antebellum structure. he was not less jacquecine yan than kemp rathers we it came to identifying the national interest which is behind policies and personalizing significant disagreements. he may have that in common with the historical profession too perhaps. polk saw no reason why his party should not benefit from presidential patronage. when it came to appointing officers to new reg mts and brigades. the president's parts. ship was the means he ensured the he the army fought what he wanted to fight. it's future elections was a bonus, an important one but a
bonus nonetheless. many history historians characterize polk's careful attention to detail as in john sigen tlaler words relentless micromanagement. no doubt. he was in kemp rather terms what we would call a micromanager. which is to say he forcefully and directly oversaw minute the yeah most others would delegate and second ebbs guessed decisions where he had no training, such as planning by scott or taylor. the important question is whether this hindered or helped in the war against mexico. did american victory occur in spite of polk's micromanagement and other words np sigen thaler argues that his letteredship style especially with the war department hindered rather than benefitted the war effort. this is doubly true of polk's attempted armchair control of generals according to sigen schaller. what sigen thaler calls
micromanagement i call into in my first book an energetic management style. this is why qb quote, the minimal structure of the war department in 1846 suited polk's temperament and controlling personality. end quote. this minimal structure consisted of ten staff departments, each of which answered to the general in chief, the general in chief in turn took orders from the secretary of war, who answered to the president. lifelong civil serveds, the heads of departments jealously guarded bureaucratic turf from administration to administration. since so many of them were whigs during the war they challenged polks exploitation of officer appointments and intentionally delayed orders they didn't like. the most troublesome war department bre brought craft to give one kpfrm was colonel robert jones. every koerpz, order passed threw his office.
and this gave jones a whig a great deal of power. he thwarted polk wherever he could, particularly in the realm of officer appointments. at one point jones kohl lewded with scott to counter marcy's and polk's request to increase generals. secretary marcy was too clueless to detect it but polk was not. someone said earliery politics may have been polk's religion. we can argue that. it is prudent when faced a partisan war department abpartisan generals and a politicized military system to monitor closely one's own generals and war department personnel. it helped win with the war the settlement polk wouldn'ted as taylor a's election showed it was ineffective politically. during the the war polk and secretary marcy the oversaw a extreme stream lining of the army's general regulations. the ebbed result ignore the role
of the staff department that were troublesome for puck polk. the move it a managerial purpose related to the president's wartime kbels. while it might have hindered the inspector general or quarter master to the in wart poke it did not adversely affect readiness or the outcome of the war. polk also you personally reviewed the war department budget during the mexican war. the a task previously undertaken by mizzell level treasury department officials. relentless micromanagement this was for sure i think. but it occurred after polk caught marcy attempting to funnel money threw the war department to his own pet political pronating project, a series of internal improvements. whether the federal government should fund the construction of internal improvements was one of the top contentious issues of the jacquecine era with banking and the protect of tariff. whigs favored all three. most democrats opposed. polk's veet o the river and harbor bill was a signature move
of his presidency. sim similar to the his v. sew toe of andrew jackson maceville road. marcy's attempt to garner money could have caused untold political damage to polk. polk was not the first modern president in the commanding way theodore roosevelt was. the powers he gave to the executive branch during the war passed away with the treaty of gaud lube hidalgo. on display during the wrar polk's jacquecine ideology. suspicious temperament and penchant to micromanage with his own self-discipline and self-consciousen willingness to attack civil liberties. with the exception of self-discipline these might work to hinder the attention prosecution of war in polk's case they rated together to make him an efficient and ultimately successful commander in chief during the mexican-american war.
thank you. [ applause ] >> and now i'd like to introduce aaron crawford who may have the best title of any of us up here today. aaron crawford formerlily of the center for presidential history at southern methodist university is -- has just begun his tenure as assistant of the papers of andrew jackson at the university of tennessee and currently working on a monograph about presidential memoirs. aaron's going to talk about the arresting achievements of the overshadowed, the perilous reemergence of james k. polk. all right. >> thank you very much, john. and also i want to thank michael
cohen for putting the conference together. it's -- it's an experience seeing all of my former assistant editors of the james k. polk project. and that's kind of what i want to talk about, the sort of the journey i had from here and particularly the last five to six years that i had at the center for presidential history. in part because the project that i primarily worked on there was an oral history of the george w. bush administration. and i really wish that i had known that polk had pennsylvania relative named george w. polk. it would have satisfied several people. it's a question that has been sore of rolling around in my mind for several years, simply
because probably more than any other president, as i moved in and out of oral histories with secretary of state, secretary of defense, people who come to events about james k. polk. people seemed to gravitate toward polk. and they were republicans. which raised some interesting questions. and it's -- it's had me thinking really about polk, particularly about his obscure afterlife. and this is really what polk is known for is his obscurity. i can remember a day long ago during graduate school when kent denton feller introduced me to a wonderful essay from james thurber from 1936 called something about polk. which is -- there is just something about polk that we
can't remember anything about him. and i'll quote thurber fop for all of our array of presidents there was none less memorable nan james k. polk. if 10 plarts picked at random were asked to list the names of all presidents it isically most would leave out the name of the 11th. even if remembering his name, surely none of them could put down a single fact about him. he was a man of no arresting achievement. now this is a 1936, after a good 40-year effort by historians to convince americans that no one had actually -- had more arresting achievements than james k. polk. and they were really successful within the historical profession. but this obscurity sort of took on a life of its own. and thurber was sort of a
jumping off point. so you can find countless articles throughout america for the next 60 years where polk is frankly ridiculed for in obscurity. 1964 as ascoe, california. students came together to form the first james k. polk fan club. you get the -- you get the impression that they only wanted it for the news letter, "the slow polk." or the 1984 article in the "new york times" about polk's hometown where the journalist went and the local burger king had put a picture of polk there in the restaurant. and almost everyone who walked in thought it was the man who founded burger king. this is polk's hometown, by the
way, north carolina. or two or three years later, 1988 campaign when al gore in a debate when he is asked -- you we don't get the questions any more process. they asked gore if he is elected president whose portrait are you going to hang in the oval office? he said james k. knox. that's strange nuch but then the strange thing is bruce babbitt sawed he would hang up polk's portrait. these are people who are appreciation for polk. you know, 1995, america finally got around to giving polk his postage stamp. and by the end of the year you will see countless articles throughout the country about how it was one of the worst selling
stamps. in fact, one of them is the the innovative u.s. senate who finally gave poke his stamp in 1995. that pretty much says it all. even to last week when i was thinking about this, sit down to watch an episode of seinfeld. and one of the -- one of my favorite episodes, the buizarreo jerry. when jerry is set one up with a girlfriend. and her pafrt president is james k. polk and that apparently seals the deal for jerry. i will also mention, they might be giants.
this isn't like winston churchill of his own leadership who seems to single-handedly fight world war ii when he looks at miss his home ores not that leadership but interested in the parts of polk's personality taken to be detrimental and wondering if in the jacquecine yan context scheme, politicization of things, you know, might work in your favor at least to pettette g et the policies through win a war that kind of thing. that -- that's all. yeah. yes, sir. >> c.s. robinson. ver veils, kentucky. aaron draufrd has a timely reminder that is currently invogue to look at presidential power in the white house and the study of polk also allows you to spot hypocrisy in the current debate. and i'm struck by the fact that
probably very -- very few of those members of the senate who recently voted on a new presidential war powers act are people who represent states that came into the union as a result of the policies of the polk administration. >> if you look at the run up to world war i, world war ii, and i say world war i but it's really at the same time u.s. breakdown with mexico again. the honest discussion and debate in the american newspapers about polk and war powers is pretty astounding. >> yes. >> and once you get past vietnam you don't really see that. you see pieces like the washington journal where opinion makers, you know, will cast their opinion. but you don't see any real examination like you did before of polk. because this is really an
important issue about polk's presidency. so i think you are right. there is ---en a i think this is -- explains part of the fascination with polk is that what they are really are craving is someone who has this kind of discipline. >> yes. >> but they -- they are astoundingly ignorant in many ways. >> thank you. >> amy. >> yeah, hi. i'm amy. kelley first i wanted to say les anybody wonder about the investment question plantation. when he broached buying the plantation sarah didn't want to do it. well he said i am determine to make more money or lose more. and that's as always summed up for me. because he is not a gambling man, right. but he sees the writing on the wall. and it's like that is how you are going to make the money or lose the money. >> thank you so much for saying
that. i have been over here kicking myself because i had a skin judge little paragraph that said he bought a plantation. he bought ut one in mississippi. >> did tshl with the west tennessee but the mississippi one. >> that was in there. my eye i'dly jumped over to -- i'm glad you it chapters it perfectly. >> aaron i wanted to say to yours i really appreciated your talk. one of the things when i was writing the sarah biography that i had to deal with is she is a widow for 42 years. and she never stops wearing black and never stops talking about james. >> she tries to find a biographer. >> i was going to bring the biographer thing up was she kept trying to find a bafrpger and she finally reaches out to some guy and says, look, i'm really good friends with president johnson. he will give you an interview. et cetera. please take this on. then the biographer goes and i found this in the johnson papers and writes johnson. and says, okay, i got mrs. polk
wants me to write her husband's biography. and i will only do this if you can assure me that i can write a biography of him that is fair to the truth of what happened. and he never writes back. and that biography never gets written. and the biography never gets written. even -- even in his own life, like this obscurity thing i think is already miasma, which is hanging over the whole situation. >> you're exactly right. and first bancroft who writes the first biography, he creates the so-called four statements which is a total fabrication. polk never said this. but even the very fact that polk's home doesn't survive a decade after sarah's death at a time when, you know, people were memorializing other presidents with homes, any tear polks down within a decade and his own
family is complicit to some degree. to this very day a year ago i think it was "the new york times" are reporting in nashville a debate about digging polk up from the state grounds there and moving him again, which would be what number four, number three, i can't remember. nobody wants him apparently. it's -- i mean that's the gist of some of the articles. and he is i think -- i mean the thurber piece really although 100 years aigt almost says it all. >> well first of all i'd like to thank you all for coming and participating in in round table. and i want to maybe pivot the discussion a little bit if i might. i've studied polk for many years. and as time goes forward. as, you know, his history is revised and reexamined and we look at his legacy. for me the thing that i find i treasure most about him or that is i think may be his greatest
legacy is his diaries. i think his diaries are just phenomenal work of first person writing. and i just throw it back to you, would like to see what are your opinions of -- of his diaries compared to other memoirs or first person works? and what would would your assessment be of him? >> i can't really speak to that one. >> it's actually an extraordinary document. just going through it again a few weeks ago. this again tells you everything you need to know about polk's discipline. i mean in the printed form it's 2074 pages. it's a massive effort that he did every single day once he started. and it -- and while it's not particularly reflective because polks not a particularly reflective guy. it tells you a lot about being president. in the mid-19th century.
and exactly what it entailed and what it meant. it is an extraordinary document that's not really -- i don't think it's really appreciated the way it should be. but i'll go with allen nevins if you see the volume condesed says it's a magnificent document that establishes his greatness in spite of his mediocrity. >> any other questions? >> i think that's it. >> everybody ready to forget about polk already. >> what are we here for? >> thank you very much. [ applause ] all weak we are featuring american history tv programs as a preview of what's available
every weekend on cspan3. the lectures in history, american auvgts in artifacts. civil where. oral histories. president presidency. and special coverage about our nation's history. enjoy american history tv now and every weekend on cspan3. week nights this month, we're featuring american history tv programs as a preview of what's available every weekend on cspan3. tonight the life and career of general dwight d. eisenhower who became america's 34th president in 1953. process he win we begin with david mills on how the chief of staff jarj marshal and eisenhower helped win the war. he is with the u.s. army command and general staff college. watch american history tv tonight at 8:00 eastern on
cspan3. snoecspan3. sunday at 9:00 a.m. eastern a washington journal on american history tv live special call-in program looking back at wood stock, the 1969 cultural and musical phenomenon. the book age of great dreams, america in president 1960s, the author joins us to take your calls. >> drugs matter. but who takes them and why they have the effect they have is the early 60s and 70s is something we wrestle with as scholars to understand. the technology of drugs. we got david the cat wright in here some have thought about this. this is imperative of understanding of not just the 60s but history. what drugs we lose as a given period and place have have an incredibility ability to change the direction of society. >> call in to talk with the
author about the social movements of the 60s leading up to wood stock and its legacy. wood stock, 50 years. sunday at 9:00 a.m. eastern on cspan's washington journal, also live on american history tv on cspan3. the house will be in order. >> for 40 years cspan has been providing america unfiltered coverage of congress, the white house, the supreme court and public policy events from washington, d.c. and around the country. so you can make up your own mind. created by cable in 1979. cspan is brought to you by your local cable or satellite provider. cspan, your unfiltered view of government. next, on american history tv, our look at president james polk continues with scholars
discussing his ancestry, politics and policies. this was part of a conference at the university of tennessee that marked the completion of a 60-year project to assemble president polk's papers. the event is hosted by the east tennessee historical society. it's an hour, 20 minutes. okay. i think we're ready to begin. my name is connie lester, associate professor at the university of central florida. and i have moved forward from polk. i worked on the polk papers as a graduate student but i have moved forward from polk. so my area of expertise is the -- from the end of reconstruction to world war ii. and i do agricultural history and economic history. but i'm very happy to be here today. and i want to begin the introductions to our panel. we have a very tight time line so i'm going to -- i'm going to