Two presidents dominated the landscape of mid-19th century America—Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln. Sandwiched between them, however, was James K. Polk, a remarkable and highly effective president. Indeed, he was the only one of any stature to serve after Jackson and before Lincoln. Generally speaking, Polk is thought of as a war president; but he was more than merely a president who presided over war against a foreign country (Mexico). Polk emerged as the champion of “manifest destiny,” the belief that the United States enjoyed a special dispensation and even imperative to extend its boundaries westward, even all the way to the Pacific coast. To carry out such a mandate, providential or otherwise, Polk used war and diplomacy to push the borders across the continent to the southwest as well as the northwest. Convinced that such efforts would excite and unify the nation, he seemed unprepared for the divisions created by his bold territorial initiatives.
Author: Paul H. Bergeron
Professor Bergeron is a specialist in 19th-century U.S. history, with particular emphasis on the antebellum period. He also has regional specialties in Southern history and Tennessee history. His works include The Presidency of James K. Polk (Lawrence, 1987), Antebellum Politics in Tennessee (Lexington, 1982), and Paths of the Past: Tennessee, 1770-1970 (Knoxville, 1979). He co-authored Tennesseeans and Their History (Knoxville, 1999) with Stephen V. Ash and Jeanette Keith. He edited Volumes 8-16 of The Papers of Andrew Johnson (Knoxville, 1989-2000) and co-edited Volumes 1 and 2 of the Correspondence of James Polk (Knoxville, 1969-1972).
Suddenly thrust into the presidency after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in April 1865, Johnson had to complete the task of ending the Civil War and also launch the effort to bind up the nation’s wounds by establishing stability and order throughout the country, particularly in the Rebel states. Given the climate of the times, every move he made was subjected to scrutiny and, quite often, criticism and attack, especially by certain Republican leaders of Congress. He vigorously defended both the Constitution, as he interpreted it, and the office of the president from incessant attacks by Congressional leaders. Yet, the legislative branch gained the upper hand early in the battle and eventually sought to oust Johnson from office.