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Idaho’s MVP: Polk

peterson MARTIN

Idaho’s territorial sesquicentennial celebration will present many opportunities to reflect on our state’s history. At the kick-off ceremony on Boise’s capitol steps on March 4 there was a considerable focus on the role of Abraham Lincoln in Idaho’s territorial history. Considering that he was president when Idaho Territory was created and that he appointed all of our initial territorial officials, the attention paid to him is appropriate.

But was he the most important president with respect to Idaho? There are several presidents who, for varying reasons, could be considered for that distinction. Lincoln is clearly one. Others might suggest Jefferson for his role in initiating the Louisiana Purchase and dispatching Lewis and Clark’s Corp of Discovery. Another possibility is Benjamin Harrison, who signed the legislation creating the state of Idaho.

And then there is the interesting, but little known, role of Grover Cleveland. During Cleveland’s presidency legislation was approved by both the House and Senate to divide Idaho Territory, attaching northern Idaho to Washington and southern Idaho to Nevada. This legislation would have actually eliminated Idaho. But by the time the bill reached President Cleveland for his consideration, Congress had adjourned. He declined to sign it, which effectively vetoed it.

Even though each of these presidents played significant roles in the creation of Idaho, I would suggest that none of them deservers the title of Idaho’s most important president. Rather, I think that distinction should go to our country’s eleventh president, James Polk. If you aren’t familiar with him, consider yourself to be part of the majority. But without him there would not have been either the territory or state of Idaho.

James Polk was from Tennessee and a protégé of Andrew Jackson. His first elective office was to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he eventually was elected Speaker of the House. He also served as Governor of Tennessee. Elected president in 1844 as a dark horse candidate, he pledged to only serve a single term. Polk was a Democrat and the Democratic Party was badly divided, especially by the issue of slavery. The leadership of the party was also filled with
wannabe presidents, including Martin Van Buren, James Buchanan, John C. Cahoun and others, all having individual agendas to help promote their own political interests. Polk had a difficult, but highly successful, four years, as president.

The highest item on Polk’s presidential agenda was territorial expansion. At the time, the western border of the U.S. was defined by the Louisiana Purchase. When Polk took office in 1845, the United States consisted of 1.7 million square miles of land.

Texas was annexed by the U.S. and became a state in late 1845.

The Oregon country was jointly occupied by the U.S. and Great Britain. Although Great Britain wanted title to the Columbia River, Polk stood firm on establishing the U.S. border at the 49th parallel and, in 1846 signed a treaty with Great Britain which turned all of the land south of the 49th parallel over to the U.S., creating Oregon Territory. From that territory would come the states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, and parts of the states of Montana and Wyoming.

Polk next turned his attention to areas of land that were part of Mexico. He was rebuffed by Mexico in an effort to purchase the lands and promptly began looking for an excuse to go to war with Mexico and simply take the lands away from them. He found his excuse when Mexican
troops crossed the Rio Grande into Texas and killed eleven U.S. soldiers. Declaring war on Mexico, the U.S. scored a series of military victories and in 1848 the two countries signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, adding territory that would become California, Nevada, Utah, most of Arizona and parts of New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming.

The total of Polk’s land acquisitions was 1.2 million square miles. Without those lands, the U.S. would have no Pacific coast and today’s western border states would be considerably smaller versions of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico. And, most importantly for Idaho, there would be no Idaho. It was James Polk who made possible the later Idaho related actions of Lincoln, Harrison and Cleveland. That is why I think that he was the president of greatest importance to Idaho. But, aside from streets named after him in a handful of Idaho cities, Polk’s name is little known and uncelebrated in Idaho.

Marty Peterson grew up in the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley. He is retired and lives in Boise.

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