In this ever more bizarre world we live in, the creepiest news story of the week is that the Tennessee State Senate voted 20-6 to exhume the bodies of James K. Polk, 11th president of the United States, and that of his wife, Sarah Childress Polk.
The good senators want to move the bodies — or what’s left of them, he died in 1849 and she in 1891 — from the
grounds of the Tennessee State Capitol to the grounds of the James K. Polk House and Museum in Columbia, Tenn., 95 miles away.
Because President Polk isn’t on our currency or sculpted on Mt. Rushmore, he is rapidly fading from memory. The senators say that few people even know that the president’s remains are on the state capitol grounds, and fewer still visit the site.
They figure the headstones will be seen by more people if they are next to the museum.
James Polk was a born politician. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives at age 30. By the time he was 40 he was elected Speaker of the House, the only one of our presidents to also hold that office.
His road to the White House was nonetheless rocky. He served as governor of Tennessee from 1839 to 1841, but then lost two subsequent bids to hold that office.
Instead of giving up on politics, however, in 1844 he decided to seek the vice presidential nomination. Then lightning struck.
Back then, the Democrats were the pro-slavery party. When they held their nominating convention, former president Martin Van Buren sought the nomination. However, Van Buren was an abolitionist.
He wanted to go slow on annexing Texas into the union, but pro-slavery Southerners saw Texas annexation as an opportunity to expand their slave base.
Van Buren received 55 percent of the vote on the first ballot, leading Lewis Cass.
(Cass, by the way, was governor of Michigan Territory from 1813 to 1831, and came through this part of the territory in 1820, mapping the area. He mistakenly identified what is now known as Cass Lake as the headwaters of the Mississippi River. Cass County is named for him.)
On subsequent ballots, Van Buren’s support dwindled, but Cass didn’t gain. The Democrats tried various “favorite son” candidates.
Finally, on the eighth ballot, the party turned to Polk, who was not so much pro-slavery as he was pro-expansion. He wanted to annex Texas as part of a “Manifest Destiny” vision, that saw the United States stretching across the continent.
He defeated Whig Henry Clay for the presidency by uniting pro-slavery Southerners wanting to annex Texas with Northern “free-soilers” who wanted Oregon Territory added to the union.
President Polk turned out to be one of our better presidents. On his watch, the U.S. won the Mexican-American War in 1846, which led to Mexico giving the United States most of what is now the southwestern part of the U.S. The Mexican Cession includes all of what is now California, Nevada and Utah, and parts of present-day Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming. It only cost $15 million, which was deducted from the debt that the U.S. claimed Mexico already owed us.
He also arranged the purchase of the Oregon Territory (which includes all of present day Oregon, Washington and Idaho plus parts of Montana and Wyoming) from Great Britain, and oversaw the creation of the U.S. Naval Academy and the Smithsonian Institution, as well as the groundbreaking for the Washington Monument.
In addition, he managed to lower tariffs, which lowered the price of imported goods, and to re-establish an independent U.S. Treasury system which lasted until the Federal Reserve was created in 1913.
Alas, Polk died of cholera, three months after leaving office. He was originally buried in a mass grave because the disease, usually caused by contaminated water or food, is infectious. We don’t hear much about cholera in the United States because we have good water supplies and technology, but cholera still infects a couple of million people each year worldwide, killing about 100,000 annually.
A year after his first burial, Polk’s bones were dug up and reburied at Polk Place, his estate, as he had instructed in his will.
The estate was sold in 1893, and he and Sarah had to move again, this time to the State Capitol.
If he is to be buried a fourth time and she a third, however, the effort will also have to be approved by the Tennessee House of Representatives, a county court and the Tennessee Historical Society.
Is it just me, or does it seem bizarre that 168 years after anybody died, except maybe Jesus Christ, that anyone would care enough to exhume the body? And even then, in hopes that more people will look at the headstone, and not because of an alleged question as to cause of death?
Tennessee would do his memory better by investing the tax dollars saved in a few Polk biographies or other Tennessee history texts to use in its public schools. Let the Polks rest in peace.
Tom West is editor and general manager of the Record. Reach him at (320) 616-1932 or by email at [email protected]