With the Washington Post debating the most underrated presidents, I’d put my vote for James K. Polk. Polk’s tactics remain controversial and he had no stomach for resolving the festering issue of slavery and its expansion, even as he forced the issue forward by massively expanding the country. Even for all that, though, Polk’s long-term impact on the nation in just a single term in office was massive and indisputably positive, scoring most of what is now Oregon and Washington from Great Britian without a fight (but not without some nervous moments) and adding Texas, California, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, most of Arizona and much of Colorado from a dysfunctional Mexico that could never have developed them. Polk, not Teddy Roosevelt, should be on Mount Rushmore.
Anyway, we think political rhetoric is harsh today, but this was a favorite example of mine from Robert Merry’s book on Polk. Senator Edward Hannegan of Indiana – a member of Polk’s own party – in a dialogue on the Senate floor, predicted that history would judge Polk (who had run on a promise to win the Oregon Territory, whose boosters used the slogan “54’40” or fight!”) harshly for settling for the Oregon territory only up to the 49th parallel:
So long as one human eye remains to linger on the page of history, the story of his abasement will be read, sending him and his name together to an infamy so profound, a damnation so deep, that the hand of resurrection will never be able to drag him forth. He who is the traitor to his country can never have forgiveness of God.
Polk, of course, did settle, more or less, for the 49th parallel. Footnote: after Hannegan was not renominated for another Senate term, Polk, on his way out of office, appointed Hannegan the US Ambassador to Prussia.