I wouldn’t blame you at all if the name “James Knox Polk” didn’t jog much in your memory. Our eleventh president has been largely ignored both by textbooks and pop culture. He had no tragic assassination story, nor was his personality particularly fiery or over the top. Many would assume his single term in office was as uneventful as it was short, another chief executive who failed to quell the tensions that would soon erupt into the Civil War. However, when the life and labor of this obscure politicians are actually examined, what’s discovered is a determined and workmanlike ability that made James K. Polk’s presidency one of the most successful, and important, in the history of our country. And no one takes greater pride in explaining this hidden legacy than the people at the President James K. Polk Home and Museum.
The house itself is located in Columbia, Tennessee, a small town that Polk’s family actually helped to found in 1808. Completed in 1816, Polk would only live there for a few years before moving on and pursuing his political career. However, it now stands as Polk’s last remaining residence (besides the White House, of course), which has greatly contributed to its memorialization as a hub for all things James K. Polk. Before you even enter the actual homestead, take a trip next door to the Sisters’ House, which acts as a visitor center for the site (though it was once home to the families of Polk’s married sisters). Upon entering, you are greeted with a surprisingly well-stocked gift shop, which leads right into a mini-theatre. There, you can watch a short, educational movie on Polk to give you historical context for the house tour. The center also features a wonderfully curated museum, which documents the unexpected rise of “Young Hickory” through America’s blossoming Second Party System. You’ll definitely leave the exhibit with a thorough appreciation of Polk’s accomplishments, ready to discover the secrets awaiting you within his actual home. But what really is there to appreciate about President James K. Polk?
Polk was born in 1795 to a moderately well-off farming family from North Carolina. The family moved out to the Tennessee frontier in 1806, where his father would have much influence as a land surveyor. However, James’ sickly childhood meant it would be difficult for him to follow in his father’s footsteps, and he instead took a more intellectual path. He would excel at the University of North Carolina, and by age twenty-three he was learning law from important politician Felix Grundy. Though quiet in nature, he always displayed dignity and respect, which, combined with a youthful charm, proved to be the perfect demeanor for his Tennessee electorate. He was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1825, where he would go on to serve seven terms as a Jacksonian Democrat. His political skills were greatly refined during this period, and his success as a loyal ally of Andrew Jackson led to his selection as Speaker of the House in 1835, the only president to ever hold the title. However, no success story is without its failures. He left the House in 1839 to run for governor of Tennessee, which he won, only to lose the subsequent races of 1841 and 1843. Stripped of elected office, Polk entered the election year of 1844 with little hope of any national political power.
However, 1844 turned out to be a strange year for the Democratic Party, with more experienced candidates like former President Martin Van Buren and political veteran Lewis Cass proving too controversial to gain necessary support at the Democratic convention. After many failed ballots, James K. Polk, who had been hoping for the vice-presidential position, was put forward as a safe compromise candidate, and he quickly won the nomination. Polk put together an ambitious set of campaign promises, which involved establishing an independent treasury, lowering the national tariff, and acquiring the territories of Oregon and California from Britain and Mexico, respectively. In a close and contested election against Whig Party leader Henry Clay, Polk came out on top with the tightest popular vote margin at the time. Though the road to the presidency had been hard and, at times, impossible, Polk was determined to fulfill the promises he made. One by one, he checked off every major campaign promise, a feat that remains unmatched by any other president to this day. By the end of his first term, Polk had cleaned up the nation’s financial situation, waged and won a war against Mexico, and expanded America’s territory by more than one-third, from sea to shining sea. Keeping his last major promise to not seek a second term, Polk retired from public life in March of 1849, only to die three months later from cholera at the age of fifty-three. Honest, hard-working, and dutiful to the end, Polk made sure to leave his country better, and certainly bigger, than before.
Below are pictures of Polk’s charming town of Columbia, Tennessee.
Though this life overview is intriguing in and of itself, a tour of James K. Polk’s homestead promises countless more stories from his unlikely career. Being his only major dedicated museum, the ancestral home contains a diverse assortment of the president’s belongings and furniture, all displayed as if Polk was going to walk in tomorrow. As you venture from room to room, the guide shares little-known tidbits spanning his entire life, going beyond just the politics. One major topic of the tour is Polk’s wife, Sarah Childress, whose immense wealth, intelligence, and beauty made her a powerful force in and out of the White House. Living to the age of eighty-seven, Sarah had the longest retirement and widowhood of any first lady, a longevity that no doubt contributed to the large amount of interesting tales centered around her. There are definitely more surprises than one would initially expect within the house of this little-known president, and even after the house tour is finished, there are more Polk-themed buildings to visit. In the homestead’s backyard lies a detached kitchen, which was reconstructed in 1946 on the grounds of its original foundation. The structure, fully furnished with kitchen items of the time, gives great insight into how food would have been prepared in the early nineteenth century. Located next to the homestead is also the Polk Presidential Hall, which, though originally constructed as a church, was recently converted into a museum gallery. Containing a wide array of artifacts, the exhibits within go beyond just James K. Polk, spreading awareness to other historically and culturally significant topics of his time. Combining a tour of the main house with visits to the visitor center, kitchen, and Polk Presidential Hall provides an enriching experience that will leave you deeply educated on the life and world of a man who deserves much more credit than he gets.
So, take a trip to Colombia, Tennessee, to unearth the stories of our unrightfully overlooked eleventh president. Though not nearly as famous as his Tennessean predecessor Andrew Jackson, he followed candidly in his footsteps, working tirelessly to improve the country for future generations. The character of his frontier home perfectly parallels his unique life: though humble and unassuming, a treasure trove of wonder and interest awaits for anyone who cares to examine it. Nothing less than a historic gem, the James K. Polk Home and Museum is a must for anyone looking to be surprised by the tales of our past.