Tom Chaffin: Mitt Romney: The Second Coming of James K. Polk?

Roundup: Historians' Take

Tom Chaffin is research professor of history at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He is author of Pathfinder: John Charles Frémont and the Course of American Empire and a forthcoming book on Frederick Douglass's 1845-46 lecture tour of Ireland.

Mitt Romney's campaign manager Matt Rhoades sent reporters aGoogling in August when he suggested that his candidate's presidential role-model might be James K. Polk. According to the Huffington Post's Jon Ward, "Rhoades and the rest of the members of Romney's inner circle think a Romney presidency could look much like the White House tenure of the 11th U.S. president."

A Democrat who served as chief-executive from 1845 to 1849, Polk numbers among America's most intriguing, lesser known presidents. To be sure, the Tennessean -- though often a Machiavellian political maestro -- was in life, and remains in historical memory, an austere figure. Although he increased the nation's area by a third, Polk never possessed the leading-man allure of the likes of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, the Roosevelts, Kennedy, and Reagan.

Conventional wisdom associates Polk's presidency with Manifest Destiny. The phrase, coined in 1845 by journalist John O'Sullivan, came to refer to an unbridled, in most cases east-to-west, U.S expansionism ordained by a Protestant, Anglo-Saxon God.

But Polk wasn't particularly religious; and, so far as we know, he never uttered or penned the phrase Manifest Destiny. Not for this practical politician such a gaseous notion. Rather, husbanding political capital, Polk propelled his expansionist projects successively not simultaneously. And each was designed to appeal to specific partisan, sectional and economic constituencies. In the end, Polk's successes, for good or ill, were truly astonishing: waging war against Mexico, he secured U.S. title to Texas (a task initiated by Polk's predecessor John Tyler); and from Mexico -- also resultant of that same war -- Polk obtained for the United States today's American Southwest and California. And negotiating with Great Britain, he obtained the Pacific Northwest of today's continental 48 states....

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