James K. Polk

If I had to pick my favorite American President on this Presidents’ Day, it would have to be James K. Polk, our 11th Chief Executive.

My fascination with Polk goes back to my childhood of memorizing the Presidents. He was a Tennessean (although a native of North Carolina) and a protege of our first Tennessee president, Andrew Jackson. He was the youngest man ever elected up to 1845 (49 years old when he was sworn in) and the first to sport long hair (a mullet, I suppose). He extended our country’s boundaries westward to the Pacific Ocean through negotiation with Great Britain and war with Mexico. He was probably the most dedicated and hardest working president, certainly in the first 60 years of the 19th Century.

(Polk also had ties to the subject of my latest book project, Tennessee lawyer and politician Adam Huntsman.)

I learned later that he had not been admired or adored as other men who held the office; in fact, he was somewhat devious and calculating. But he set his agenda, decided to accomplish it in one term, and he did it. Of course this work ethic prematurely aged him and likely contributed to his death at the age of 53, just three months after he left office.

In the last few decades, Polk has finally received his due in the pantheon of Presidential greatness. His most recent biographer believes him to be one of the greatest, certainly the greatest of the one-term chief executives.

Polk is also the subject of an upcoming documentary by Brian Rose, who explores his own fascination with the president. Here’s a few clips he has posted on YouTube:


Happy Presidents Day

This Presidents Day reminds me of my fascination as a child with American history and the men who served as our nation’s leaders.

When I was about 12 years old, I took it upon myself one summer to memorize the Presidents in order, from Washington to Reagan (at that time). My grandmother had a set of World Book Encyclopedias in the attic from the time my father and his brothers were kids. She also had a set of World Book Yearbooks that chronicled the events of every year since 1962. The 1962 edition had a section devoted to the Presidents, with facts, biographies, and pictures. I poured through that book, memorizing the Presidents. I even traced their pictures on sheets of notebook paper.

My grandmother and I would sit on her front porch in her swing as I recited the Presidents to her–in order, Washington to Reagan–as she looked in the book and checked my accuracy. And as best I remember, I was right more times than I wasn’t. And I can still recite them today, with a few selective omissions.

Almost 30 years later, that same book–along with the entire Encyclopedia set– now sits on my office bookshelf. Its spine is split from top to bottom, the back cover barely clinging to it. But I can open it and flip through its pages and remember that summer with Grandma.