The list of things President Harry S. Truman, presidential architect Karl Rove and alt-rock band They Might Be Giants have in common is probably a short one. But all three agree on one thing: James K. Polk.
“In four short years he met his every goal,” TMBG sang. Truman and Rove — among many others — sang the same tune. In “Met His Every Goal? James K. Polk and the Legends of Manifest Destiny ,” Tom Chaffin, a University of Tennessee professor who is also editor of “Correspondence of James K. Polk,” sings a different tune.
The assertion that Polk, at the beginning of his presidency, outlined a plan that encompassed the acquisition of California, the acquisition of all or most of Oregon, a reduction in tariffs and creation of an independent Treasury, has become part of American political lore and even popular culture.
Many reputable historians have repeated the tale without much checking, probably because the source of the story is George Bancroft, considered one of the greatest historians of the 19th century. Who wants to dispute George Bancroft?
But Bancroft was also a political operative who played a key role in Polk winning the Democratic nomination in 1844 (and lost the Massachusetts gubernatorial race that year). He then went to work in the Polk administration, first as Navy secretary and then ambassador to Great Britain.
While Polk’s accomplishments transformed the nation in the middle of the century, by century’s end his reputation had waned. Bancroft had by then gained fame and fortune as a historian of the colonial period and as a member of the diplomatic corps.
As the 1800s and Bancroft’s time on earth began to wane, he decided he would attempt to revive his old patron’s reputation, and set out to write a biography that would accomplish the task. He didn’t get very far, but he did produce a “biographical sketch” that survives.
In that sketch, written in the late 1880s, Bancroft recounts Polk having “raised his hand high in the air” and then, “bringing it down with force on his thigh,” proclaiming the “four great measures” he hoped to achieve as president.
The anecdote soon found its way into James Schouler’s “History of the United States of America Under the Constitution.” Schouler cited a letter from Bancroft as the source.
From there, it spread like wildfire.
But, Chaffin argues, “Bancroft’s presidential thigh-slapping anecdote hangs by the thinnest of evidentiary threads.” He never wrote about it, as far as can be determined, until the 1880s. And, prior to that, no other known source recounts the story.
So, where did it come from?
Chaffin is persuaded that it was a conscious effort by Bancroft, “the only surviving member of Polk’s cabinet,” to bolster history’s view of the Polk presidency.
Aside from the lack of confirmation from other sources, there are inconsistencies even in Bancroft’s rendition. In his biographical sketch, he places the incident after Polk has taken office, and relates it as second hand. In his letter to Schouler, he moves it to before the inauguration, and says he witnessed it personally.
This is not to say, Chaffin stresses, that Polk does not deserve credit for all he achieved. “What Polk accomplished during his single term presidency (1845-49) was, for good or ill, astonishing,” Chaffin writes. “Polk gave his nation its modern coast-to-coast breadth … and that status, as a continental nation-state has shaped — and to this day shapes — much of America’s role as a world power.”
But, Chaffin contends in his role of historiographical detective, there is no contemporaneous evidence — and little of any other kind, either — that Polk laid out his plans in advance in the manner Bancroft described and that that is now widely believed.
As editor of Polk’s correspondence, he has found no confirmation. To the contrary, he writes, he found “a paper trail that, for my money, offers a case study of how an anecdote of dubious origins eventually becomes enshrined as settled fact.”
Why does this matter?
Because Polk’s reputation — which is considerably greater today than it was in the late 19th century — rests, to a great degree, on the formulation that he accomplished all he set out to do. And, clearly, he did not.
Polk attempted to acquire Cuba, and failed. Efforts to quickly bring California into the union as a state also fell by the wayside, as did his plan to organize other territories won in the Mexican War.
Chaffin compares the “four great measures” story to Babe Ruth’s supposed “called shot” in the 1932 World Series. Both are dubiously sourced. Almost certainly, neither actually happened. But Polk did achieve those great things, and Ruth did hit the home run. In the end, that’s what really matters.
John Bicknell is a former editor for CQ Roll Call and author of “America 1844: Religious Fervor, Westward Expansion and the Presidential Election That Transformed the Nation.” The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.