Who is your favorite President – besides the obvious choice of our fabulous President Trump?
In our house, it’s President James Knox Polk, 1845-1849.
My son, Gunner, had a project due on an assigned President, and he was uncharacteristically stalling writing his essay. Old Presidents were “old” and not exactly engaging for him. At the time, I knew next to nothing about Polk. My son kept wandering into the kitchen, searching for help from me, trying to get his essay started. In other words, he wanted me to stop what I was doing and help him write his essay. No. Not happening. I won’t do your project for you, but I didn’t want him to die on a vine either.
I prodded him with a few questions about President Polk, and he gave me a brief bio. As the last minute, he mentioned Polk was from Tennessee. I stopped washing dishes, “Where in Tennessee?”, I asked him. Gunner replied, “(mumble)…., somewhere near Nashville”. He was so discouraged, counting tiles on the kitchen floor. His voice and the mumbles came from his chest. He was swinging his arms and playing with his feet. Completely unlike him. We had great history teachers when we were kids. Sad to see him not involved, using his imagination about the time period. Time for an intervention, I thought. “Sounds like a road trip to me!”, I replied.
Road trips are legendary in our house, and at the mere mention of a road trip, Gunner’s attitude did a 180 degree turn. We sauntered into the den to ask husband, “How do you feel about going to Nashville this weekend?” Husband preplans everything and spontaneity is not his strong suit. “When?”, he said, “Tomorrow morning?”, he was almost spasm/panicking. We couldn’t really afford it, true. BUT, I remembered a huge Marriott credit I had, called around, and booked a cheap room. We invited a buddy for Gunner to make it more enjoyable, and I packed snacks and sandwich stuff to save a little bit of money. In less than 12 hours, we were on the road….. looking for adventure.
Before we left, I printed off what seemed like a ream of paper, downloaded info on President Polk, and President Jackson, Gunner’s buddy’s President. Along the way, the boys read to us data on the two Presidents. We were brushing up.
We took the scenic route to Nashville, through historic battlefields the kids had never seen, Bloody Pond, and Shiloh. Husband, from Boston, was amazed. The history was coming to life – my eyes twinkled a little – that little seed planted was growing. We talked about what it must have been like, in the midst of a Civil War, while munching on sandwiches from home.
We made our way to Nashville, checked in, and I whipped out the Platinum Amex, guaranteeing an upgrade in room and an early check-in. Wow, did we get a suite. It was like a palace! We stopped at a few historical sites that afternoon, around Nashville, to get into the mood before returning to the hotel. Kids were thrilled and headed to the pool with husband. Exhausted, in-hotel grill food, another Marriott credit, and off to sleep. So far, so good.
The next day, we did the Hermitage, President Jackson’s home, and the assignment of Gunner’s school chum. I love that kid and swear he will be our Governor one day, natural people skills. It was his first vacation outside the state and everything was new and wondrous to him (he wanted to take his hotel pillow home with him). He objected to the price of admission at The Hermitage, so, they let all of us in on student pricing (next to nothing). We spent all day there, wandering, learning, completely absorbed.
Suddenly, as only 8th graders do, they were tired and their “feet were hot”. They thought the only cure would be the hotel pool. Home we went to the hotel, more in-hotel pool grill food and very tired young men.
Next morning, we were off to Polk’s home, shown above, and again, we were lucky. Three docents and we were the only ones there. Polk is not nearly as popular as Jackson. The docents were thrilled we showed up and told those kids stories all day long. Best history teachers – ever. They even took us to the store-rooms. We were sitting on crates as they spun tales of the Texas-Mexico Wars, Stonewall Jackson, a YOUNG America, and the push “from sea to shining sea” = Manifest Destiny. Even my husband was wide-eyed. The kids were hanging on their every word. Great teachers are truly a gift. They closed for lunch but asked us to come back after lunch – they promised a surprise.
I wondered how a little museum could get any better, but dutifully, we went to lunch and returned to the docents. They knew Gunner had to do a school report on Polk and that’s why we were there. They took us to another room, and outfitted us all with gloves and masks. They let the kids handle historical archives, old guns, clothing, speeches – and they explained the policy behind the speech. It was like being in the world’s greatest attic but also a research lab with chemicals and weird lighting. The whole time, they stressed how important it was to preserve history and the art of preservation. I watched my son handle a letter from Polk to Jackson, his mentor, and my son was holding it like it was the Gutenberg Bible or the Declaration of Independence. It was so cute. But the young grad student was a male and connected extremely well with the kids.
After our lesson on historic preservation, the docents presented my son with a large frame of Polk’s campaign token cards, elaborately printed ribbons, pictures, and paraphernalia from his inauguration. My son froze (and so did I). It was surreal, like the President wasn’t really dead, but passing his legacy to a future generation. Reaching, forward to the future, to inspire. Gunner was speechless but understood the importance. Message received loud and clear.
The docents took my husband and I aside and cleared that it was just a loan from the museum, and they expected the frame to be returned (which we did). They let us know they checked our address while we were at lunch, but they were beyond kind – not big-brotherish at all. I was blubbering with thanks and appreciation. They came out to the car with us and I carefully wrapped the frame in a blanket. Lots of hugs for goodbye. One docent, a retired teacher, hugged me and whispered in my ear, regarding my son, “You make sure to watch over him, he’s a special one.”, like she knew a secret. Still embraced, I looked at her, searching for the secret through her eyes. She had the lightest blue eyes and was still, a striking woman. “I know”, I whispered in her ear. About that time, my son hugged her from the back and caught both of us. The best of days.
When we got in the car to go home, husband turned to me in a deadpan stare and said, “I love the south, that would NEVER have happened in Boston”. I couldn’t believe it happened… anywhere.
It was was mid-afternoon and we planned on taking the expressway home – fast route. “NO!!!!”, came the objections from the back seat. They wanted to take the scenic route home again. I shifted in my seat, fighting a stupid seatbelt, to look to the back, “How come?”, I asked. My son’s buddy piped up and said, “We have to say goodbye.” and my son nodded, “Yeah”. I glanced at my husband, and he nodded in agreement, “And so it shall be done”. Within 30 minutes we were out of the city on a two-lane road. I was staring at the white dash lines on the road as they flipped by. “They wanted to say goodbye”, I thought, as if those men weren’t dead, “Gone but not forgotten” took on a new meaning.
Both boys got an “A” on their papers and presentations. My husband INSISTED that he did not trust FEDEX (the most reliable courier on the planet) to return the Polk frame and in one day, drove 4 1/2 hours to Nashville and 4 1/2 hours home. I do love that man. He also wrote a handsome check to the museum. A few weeks later, a package arrived from Nashville for my son. It was a faded campaign ribbon from President Polk, with a packet of copies from his speeches. The message was handwritten and simple, “Know your history and be inspired.”
It’s no surprise, Gunner still talks about Polk, years later. The Polk campaign ribbon is the tree topper for his Christmas tree. His electives are history classes and he’s an avid reader, usually historical, war, strategy related.
Moral of the story: Find a great teacher, wherever they might be, and travel with your kids, even when you cannot really afford it. The payback is priceless.
What did we learn about President Polk? A lot. See below. He was strikingly similar to our President Trump.
Polk oversaw the annexation of Texas, went to war with Mexico and resolved the final problem with Mexico with the Gadsden Purchase, and settled the Oregon Territory (49th parallel) with England. Manifest Destiny was also part of his administration and Polk made it happen through land acquisition. Polk was not expected to be President and agreed to only serve one term, keeping his word. He and his wife were strict Presbyterians, no drinking, and swept out the swill and substantially changed the party atmosphere of the White House. Polk established an independent treasury and what do you know…… substantially lowered tariffs. He worked 16 hour days, nonstop, and kept his cabinet busy on the business of the nation. Polk was relentless. He retired to Nashville and died three months later. For a President, Polk accomplished an incredible amount in 4 short years. Sound familiar?
Yes, the politically correct historians will point out Polk did own slaves, but both he and his wife’s wills freed their slaves upon their death.
Look at Polk’s opinion on tariffs. Polk was “America First”:
“A potential pitfall for Polk’s campaign was the issue of whether the tariff should be for revenue only, or with the intent to protect American industry. Polk finessed the tariff issue in a published letter. Recalling that he had long stated that tariffs should only be sufficient to finance government operations, he maintained that stance, but wrote that within that limitation, government could and should offer “fair and just protection” to American interests, including manufacturers.” http://www.tn4me.org/article.cfm/a_id/194/minor_id/67/major_id/22/era_id/4
Tariffs, for revenue or for the protection of American manufacturers. Who does that sound like to you?????
I won’t bore you with a full dissertation of President Polk but he was fascinating. His time in history was pivotal to what became our America.
Happy President’s Day!