On this Presidents Day I have been thinking about Presidents Andrew Jackson and James K. Polk.
Jackson was an "Indian fighter" who invaded Florida in order to kill the self-manumitted black Americans and their First Nations allies who lived there. For that reason (and others) there is a drive to remove him from the twenty dollar bill.
After reading The America Slave Coast, and talking with its authors, Ned and Constance Sublette on my podcast, I have developed a dislike of James Polk as well.
He was a slave owner. This was not uncommon, as men like Washington, Jefferson, and other Presidents were as well. To own black human property was one of the primary ways to accrue wealth and income in the colonies and then later United States. But, to my eyes, there was something especially duplicitous about Polk's involvement in the Black Holocaust (or Maafa) and its slave labor camps, tortures, rapes, death marches, destruction of family, and other crimes against humanity.
As President Polk waged war to expand territories for slavery, he also worked through his cousin to buy slaves, an action that in turn added to his personal wealth.
Writing at H-Net, William Dusinberre offers the following comments about the book Slavemaster President: The Double Career of James Polk:
James K. Polk usually ranks as one of the nation's better presidents because he accomplished several objectives, including the acquisition of the Southwest, during his single term in office. Historians recognize him as one of the new breed of professional politicians, with little attention to how he supported himself as he pursued his ambitions. Occasionally, scholars will acknowledge that he was a cotton planter, though most--including his biographer, Charles G. Sellers--neglect to consider what influence his connection with slavery might have had on his life and career. In Slavemaster President: The Double Career of James Polk, William Dusinberre remedies this omission in a well-written and carefully-researched study of the eleventh president's roles both as a slaveowner and as a slaveowning politician. The result is a portrait of Polk that will make it difficult for modern readers to look upon him favorably.
Dusinberre opens with an account of a letter written during the 1844 presidential campaign by Polk's neighbor, political ally, and fellow-slaveholder Gideon J. Pillow. In response to charges that the Democratic nominee actively engaged in the slave trade, Pillow testified that Polk was "a warmhearted paternalist" (p. 11) who owned only a few "family" slaves. He had bought or sold slaves on a few occasions, but only for the purpose of uniting families, and he would never disrupt a family through the slave trade. This "comforting image" (p. 12) helped sustain Polk's support in the North, but the candidate by that time had actually purchased fourteen slaves from nonfamily members to provide labor for his cotton plantations. His preference to buy young males ranging from ages twelve to twenty-one makes it likely that he acquired workers who had already been separated from a parent. After his election he would buy nineteen more slaves, always instructing his agents to conceal his identity in order to preserve his public image as a paternalist master. Interestingly, he refused to use his salary as president to fund these purchases, but by the time of his death in 1849, he had increased his holdings to more than fifty slaves.
Though Polk hailed from a slaveholding family, he entered the "planter" ranks only after he had made his name as a political protege of Andrew Jackson. His law practice had been successful, but "a steady income from a cotton plantation would make his finances more secure" (p. 14). Thus, in 1831 he began developing into a plantation the West Tennessee land he had inherited from his father. Three years later, he sold this holding to invest with his brother-in-law in a potentially more productive venture in Mississippi, of which he became the sole owner in 1838. His goal throughout these investments clearly was to make a profit. "[C]aught up in the expansive, entrepreneurial ethic of central Tennessee,... his principal impulses as a slavemaster were acquisitive rather than paternalistic" (p. 13). Especially during his presidency, he hoped to gain a sufficient annual income to support himself and his wife through their anticipated years in retirement.
As an absentee owner, Polk had little actual contact with his field hands, but he expected his overseers to maintain strict discipline and to produce results. When a lenient overseer failed to produce sufficient cotton yields, Polk dismissed him regardless of the overseer's popularity among the slaves. Likewise, when slaves ran away to appeal to Polk's kin or acquaintances for protection from particularly severe treatment, Polk backed his employee. Occasionally he would act benevolently toward particular hands, but such actions usually occurred only when his wife or his mother intervened on a servant's behalf. In Congress, he expressed his belief that whipping was the most effective method of punishment, yet his records showed that he would not hesitate to sell unruly hands.
Polk's investments paid off. Through the 1840s and 1850s, his plantations' annual cash profits averaged almost 8 percent. For the slaves who produced these returns, however, life was dreary and harsh. Hands frequently ran away for temporary respite or to appeal for assistance from a Polk acquaintance or family member. More than half of the children among Polk's slaves died before reaching age fifteen, and the overall death rate on the Mississippi plantation was higher than elsewhere in the South. Bondsmen might receive some comfort in setting up their own family or making friends in an extended slave community. Polk and his associates, though, gave little consideration to "abroad" marriages between slaves with different owners; the majority of his married slaves, in fact, experienced a disruption of their unions because of sale or movement of a spouse.
A sense of community was probably greater among Polk's slaves because of the large number who had been owned by members of his extended family, but the community was still considerably unstable because of the high death rate and the frequent infusion of newly purchased young males. Few enjoyed the privileges of a slave like Henry Carter, who accompanied Polk to Washington as a personal servant, or of "Long Harry," a blacksmith whom Polk allowed to hire himself out and keep a portion of his earnings. The master did allow field hands to earn their own income by growing cotton on lands that would otherwise go unused, but this incentive, like others, was designed to serve his financial interests. Even Long Harry was ordered back to the plantation--and to leave his wife and children--when the president concluded that the difficulty in collecting Harry's fees made his skills more profitable elsewhere.What shall we do with President James K. Polk?
How do you factor in the common deflection that slavers like Washington, Jefferson, Polk, etc. "were men of their times" and that their involvement in white on black chattel slavery should be asterisks on how their presidential legacies are assessed?
More generally, who is your least and most favorite President of the United States? Why?