President James Polk Led America’s Way to the Pacific

James Polk, a native of North Carolina, was a dark horse candidate for the Democratic nomination for president in 1844.

By Jim O’Neal

On the east wall of the president’s office in the White House in 1845 hung a large map of the North American continent. Either Andrew Jackson or Martin Van Buren had acquired it and the geographical details were as accurate as science at the time could provide. This imposing map greeted James K. Polk when he entered the office as the newly elected president.

The map was printed in paper sections and glued to a linen backing. The eastern half showed the United States, with bold letters indicating ports, state capitals, large towns and turnpikes of the era. It was basically archaic, absent the new railroads and fast steamboat routes to the commercial hubs in New York, Pittsburg and New Orleans. However, the western half remained true to life, representing a vast land that lay wild and generally unused. For 300 years, Spanish landlords had largely left it undisturbed.

Now the Americans wanted it.

Their lust to possess was so strong and so emotional that it had the fervor of a religious awakening. With new territory, the republic would be free to expand, perpetuating Thomas Jefferson’s dream of a nation of farmers, counterbalancing the business and industry interests that dominated the urban East. In effect, it held the solution to saving the common man from the growing squalor of large, overcrowded cities. American expansion had not been a priority during Jackson’s tenure in office. In Polk’s, it was paramount.

The arrival of the Polks in Washington, D.C., in mid-February was greeted with more curiosity than enthusiasm. Polk was not well known as a public figure and everyone wanted to see the “dark horse” that had speared the presidency. He was only 49, the youngest president yet. Wife Sarah was a devout Presbyterian and loyal follower of the evangelical movement sweeping the United States. They quickly became viewed as partners in policy and politics, with strong views on important issues.

President Polk detested the idea of a National Bank, loathed the concept of big government and proved decidedly Southern, styling himself a true Jeffersonian. He expressed this comparison by moving David d’Anger’s bronze image of Thomas Jefferson from the Capitol to the White House lawn north portico, atop a pedestal of stucco brick. It remained there for 27 years, the only monument to a president ever to stand within the immediate enclosure of the White House.

However, the 1844 election had been about one grand issue: territorial expansion, with Mexico the obvious target. Manifest Destiny, a phrase popularized by Democrats to describe the sincere belief that the United States was divinely driven to rule from sea to sea, swept the nation. President Polk wholeheartedly endorsed the concept and as the annexation of Texas poisoned Mexican-American relations, the border between the two countries remained in dispute.

The United States claimed the Rio Grande as its southwest boundary and Mexico fixed it at the Nueces River. Polk dispatched John Slidell to Mexico to offer compensation for acceptance of the Rio Grande boundary, as well as an offer to purchase New Mexico and California. When this failed, Polk prepared for war by ordering General Zachary Taylor to bivouac 3,500 men in Texas. The Mexican Minister called the State Department for his passport and sailed home, severing diplomatic ties between the two countries.

The war arrived almost as if it was on a fixed schedule.

In April 1846, Mexican troops engaged Taylor’s forces in the disputed territory, thus providing Polk a concrete act of aggression on which to base his request for a Congressional declaration of war. On May 11, Polk charged “Mexico has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory and shed American blood upon American soil.” Congress declared war two days later and General Taylor pressed south, defeating the enemy at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma and then capturing Monterrey. Then General Winfield Scott took Vera Cruz and occupied Mexico City. In January 1847, California fell into American hands, leading to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the end of the war.

The border was fixed at the Rio Grande and Mexico relinquished all or parts of modern California, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. The United States acquired more than 500,000 square miles, the largest single annexation since the Louisiana Purchase. Mexico was reduced to half its former size.

Inevitably, the discussion then quickly switched to the issue of whether to allow slavery in the newly acquired territory, a debate that would linger long after President Polk retired after his four-year term of office, as promised before his election. There are no records I can find regarding the fate of that aspirational map that was hanging in his office when he arrived. It would have required significant revisions to reflect all the changes that occurred in four short years.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Bitter Enemies United Forever on Currency

This 1861 Confederate States of America $1000 Montgomery Note, featuring John Calhoun and Andrew Jackson, sold for $76,375 at an October 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

John Caldwell Calhoun served his full four years as vice president under John Quincy Adams, but the year was now 1828 and he needed to make a decision about his political future.

He previously had been a member of the House of Representatives (1811-17) and Secretary of War (1817-25). (He was later Secretary of State, and a U.S. Senator.)

He finally decided to run for the vice presidency again. But, in a twist, he decided to switch horses and run with Andrew Jackson rather than JQA. It seemed like a prudent choice at the time, and he and Jackson easily won the 1828 election. Then they started trying to work together.

They differed on so many fundamental issues, including states’ rights and nullification, that a schism seemed inevitable. Then, to make tensions even worse, his wife Floride Bonneau started meddling in White House politics … and Jackson’s famous temper was riled up. He even threatened to just grab Calhoun and hang him (another duel would have apparently been unseemly).

The end was much less dramatic, as Jackson simply picked Martin Van Buren to be his running mate in the 1832 presidential election. When they won, Calhoun resigned.

Calhoun would remain the only vice president to resign until Spiro Agnew joined the club.

On March 9, 1861, the Confederate States of America issued a $1,000 banknote depicting both Calhoun and Jackson. So the two bitter enemies remain joined for eternity.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Adamses First Presidential Couple to Mark their Golden Anniversary

Louisa Adams, shown in this oil portrait by Lawrence Williams, was our only First Lady born outside the United States.

By Jim O’Neal

Some presidential tidbits:

Three sets of presidents defeated each other:

► John Quincy Adams defeated Andrew Jackson in 1824; Jackson defeated Adams in 1828.

► Martin Van Buren defeated William H. Harrison in 1836; Harrison defeated Van Buren in 1840.

► Benjamin Harrison defeated Grover Cleveland in 1888; Cleveland defeated Harrison in 1892.

So much for the power of incumbency.

John Quincy Adams and wife Louisa were the first presidential couple to be married 50-plus years. She remains the only First Lady born outside the United States (London) and the first to write an autobiography, “Adventures of a Nobody.” When she died in 1852, both houses of Congress adjourned in mourning (a first for a woman).

While in the Senate, John was “Professor of Logic” at Brown University and professor of rhetoric and oratory at Harvard.

Herbert Clark Hoover was the last president whose term of office ended on March 4 (1933).

He married Lou Henry Hoover (the first woman to get a degree in geology at Stanford), and when they were in the White House, they conversed in Chinese whenever they wanted privacy.

Our 10th president, John Tyler, only served 31 days as VP (a record) before becoming president after William Henry Harrison’s death.

His wife Letitia was the first to die while in the White House. When John re-married, several of his children were older than second wife Julia.

Tyler’s death was the only one not officially recognized in Washington, D.C., because of his allegiance to the Confederacy. His coffin was draped with a Confederate flag.

Our sixth president, James Monroe, was the first senator elected president. His VP for a full eight years, Daniel D. Tompkins (the “D” stood for nothing), was an alcoholic who several times presided over the Senate while drunk. He died 99 days after leaving office (a post vice-presidency record).

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Webster Certainly Belongs on the List of Our Greatest Senators

This 1853-dated bronze statue of Daniel Webster, measuring 29.75 inches, sold for $11,950 at a March 2008 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

American poet Stephen Vincent Benét (1898-1943) is perhaps best known for his book-length narrative poem “John Brown’s Body” (1928), about the Civil War abolitionist who raided the armory at Harpers Ferry in 1859. Brown and a group of 20-plus co-conspirators captured several buildings and weapons they hoped to use to start a slave uprising.

U.S. Army Lieutenant Robert E. Lee led a contingent of Marines to quell the insurgency. Brown was captured, tried for treason and hanged. Harpers Ferry was at a busy crossroads, at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, and was the site of at least eight skirmishes while changing hands several times during the Civil War.

Benét also authored “The Devil and Daniel Webster” (1936), a fictional story about a farmer who sells his soul to the devil (Mr. Scratch) and then refuses to pay up even after receiving a three-year extension on the agreement. Benét has Webster defend him in court due to his prodigious real-life record as a famous lawyer, statesman and orator. There are many other films, books and stories about similar Faustian-type bargains, but the use of Daniel Webster was a brilliant choice due to his superior debating skills and outstanding oratory.

In Benét’s trial, despite overwhelming evidence, the jury finds in favor of Mr. Webster’s client.

In virtually every aspect, the real-life Daniel Webster (1782-1852) was almost a true larger-than-life character, at least in American politics and especially in the formative era between 1812 and the Civil War. He played a critical role in virtually every significant issue confronting the new United States government.

Webster had no equal as an orator, either in those turbulent times or in the 200 years since then. Whether in the Supreme Court (240-plus cases), the U.S. Senate, or out on the political stump, he was simply the finest; a golden-tounged spellbinder. He enthralled audiences three to four hours at a time, always in defense of the Union and the sacred U.S. Constitution.

He generated almost god-like respect and was universally considered to be a cinch to be president; particularly in his own mind. His weakness was aligning with the Whigs and a seemingly improvident inability to manage personal finances (and alcohol, as usual). He was also an elitist at a time when Andrew Jackson’s brand of populism was growing, much like the present. He was often referred to as “Black Dan” because of his political conniving.

He missed a perfect chance to be president by refusing to run as vice president in 1840 with William Henry Harrison, who defeated Martin Van Buren but died 31 days after his inauguration.

1841 was the first “Year of Three Presidents.” It began with the defeated Van Buren, followed by Harrison, and then Vice President John Tyler, who had himself sworn in immediately as president after a brief Constitutional crisis following Harrison’s death.

This phenomenon occurred again in 1881. After Rutherford B. Hayes finished his term, new President James A. Garfield took over. When Garfield succumbed to an assassin’s bullet in September, VP Chester A. Arthur moved into the White House … this time with little controversy.

So Daniel Webster never realized his ambition to become president, but any time there is a discussion about our greatest senators, you may be assured that Daniel Webster will be on everyone’s Top 5, along with Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun … two more who never quite got to wear the Presidential Crown. Sadly, we do not have any actual recordings of these great orators, but it is tantalizing to think of them in today’s contemporary politics and to judge them in this age of new media.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Events Surrounding Rockefeller, AT&T Recall Story of Hydra

John D. Rockefeller at his desk, 1930s.

By Jim O’Neal

Few people who were alive when Martin Van Buren was president (1837-41) were still alive when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated for his second term (1937). John Davison Rockefeller was, and he took advantage of every single day, even preferring to work on his many birthdays.

Were he still alive, it’s almost certain he would be mildly amused to see a modern company – AT&T – seeking approval from a government department for an $85.4 billion acquisition of media giant Time Warner. In 1974, this same agency – the U.S. Department of Justice – filed an anti-trust lawsuit against AT&T. Eight years later, “Ma Bell” was forced to break up by spinning off seven “Baby Bells.”

Perversely, one of these spinoffs, SBC Communications (named Southwestern Bell Corporation until 1995) started methodically reconsolidating and eventually bought the original AT&T and assumed its name. Next, they acquired BellSouth for $85.5 billion, with full FCC approval.

Big ’ins always eat little ’ins (old Texas maxim).

John D. Rockefeller became the world’s richest person (ever) in a similar fashion: consolidating an industry to avoid competition.

The great industrial revolution that transformed America after the Civil War sparked an inflationary boom that resulted in an oversupply of goods. Naturally, this led to price declines that caused a deflationary spiral. The balance of the 19th century was plagued by these boom-bust cycles. As new markets developed, inexperienced businessmen failed to recognize the dangers of supply-demand imbalances as they rushed to make their fortunes.

Crude oil was a classic example, since there was no way to predict increases in supply, and oil refiners proliferated due to low barriers to entry. “So many wells were flowing, the price of oil kept falling, yet they went right on drilling.” Rockefeller was one of the first to recognize there was a need for a systemic solution. He cited the years of 1869-1870 as the start of his campaign to replace competition with “cooperation.”

A Standard Oil Trust stock certificate with two John D. Rockefeller signatures, dated April 5, 1882, sold for $7,500 at an April 2014 auction.

By the early 1880s, his Standard Oil Company controlled 90 percent of U.S. refineries and pipelines. In 1882, his clever lawyers created an innovative new kind of corporation that controlled all of the holdings in a “trust.” The trust controlled over 40 companies and it became easy to control production, distribution and refining (and, obviously, prices).

In 1911, the Supreme Court ruled these were illegal monopoly practices and ordered that it be broken up into 34 new companies. In a twist, John D. Rockefeller ended up with stock in all 34 companies, and over the next 10 years their combined net worth increased fivefold, as did Rockefeller’s personal fortune. Today, ExxonMobil Corporation is the largest of the world’s Big Oil companies and is consistently among the top five companies in revenue and profits.

The Greeks had a myth about Hydra, a multi-headed monster that grew two heads every time one was cut off. You can draw your own parallels.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

As Civil War Loomed, Buchanan Failed to Act, Assumed the Worst

James Buchanan Carte de Visite Signed
This James Buchanan carte de visite, signed and dated September 1866, sold for $6,572.50 at a February 2010 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

James Buchanan was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1834 and represented Pennsylvania for 11 years during the administrations of presidents Jackson, Van Buren, Harrison and Tyler. He turned down offers to serve as U.S. attorney general for Van Buren and an appointment to the Supreme Court by Tyler. After campaigning for Polk in the election of 1844, he finally accepted the position of secretary of state, since it seemed like a clear path to the presidency.

This was a bad decision and when he and President Polk could not agree on major issues, Buchanan would complain to a friend, “My life is that of a galley slave.”

Buchanan then failed to win the Democratic nomination in 1848 and 1852, but at the age of 62, was given the post of U.S. Minister to Great Britain. There, he gained unexpected notoriety when he secretly joined with other ministers (Pierre Soulé in Spain and John Mason in France) to draft the infamous “Ostend Manifesto,” which proposed to buy Cuba from Spain. If Spain refused, then “we shall be justified in wresting” the island from its owners … a strong inference of war.

Cuba was especially important to Southern Democrats since it was primarily a plantation-slave economy based on sugar and having it as a state would add two senators and nine members to the House of Representatives. However, anti-slave Northerners were not about to go to war with Spain to add more slave states to the Union and the effort was easily defeated.

At the Democratic National Convention in Cincinnati in June 1856, Buchanan bounced back, winning the nomination and then the election.

Two days after Buchanan was sworn in as president, the Supreme Court handed down the Dred Scott decision, which affirmed the right of slave owners to take their slaves into Western territories. This bolstered Buchanan’s belief that slavery was rooted in the Constitution and could not be legislated out of existence; it was an issue for each state to decide.

Then came the Panic of 1857, which was caused by the failure of Ohio Life Insurance Company of Cincinnati. The sudden demise of a once-solid institution touched off a wave of bank runs across the nation that plunged the nation into a deep economic depression. Many railroads failed due to over-expansion as did many state banks that were operating under flimsy regulations. The only areas that were unaffected were the cotton-growers exporting to England (and they needed more slaves to expand production).

It was clear that the slavery issue would lead directly to a civil war and James Buchanan was too inept or unwilling to provide leadership to avoid one. He just assumed the worst and declared that he “would be the last president of a United States.”

Fortunately, he was wrong, but it would take four long years and 620,000 dead Americans to prevent it.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Van Buren’s ‘Palatial’ White House Not Popular with Voters

This Martin Van Buren oval sulfide brooch with the slogan “The Country Demands his Re-election,” sold for $12,500 at a September 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Martin Van Buren achieved the unique distinction of holding the offices of state senator and attorney general of New York, U.S. senator, governor of New York, U.S. secretary of state, vice president and then president.

However, he was never able to win popular support for himself or his policies at the national level.

The nation’s first major economic depression, the Panic of 1837, was undoubtedly the primary cause for undermining his popularity, although he was not responsible for the causation. Nearly a century later, another president, Herbert Hoover, would suffer nearly the same unfortunate fate.

Van Buren was the first president to be born an American citizen (1782) and he became adroit at behind-the-scenes political maneuvers. Yet, the general impression of him was that he was snobbish, autocratic and a conniver (“The Fox”). Van Buren became an obvious target for the poison darts of the Whigs as they characterized him as the antithesis of Andrew Jackson’s common-man philosophy.

Van Buren did little to combat criticism of this kind and in some respects even seemed to encourage it in his use of the White House. Adverse comments on the high style of living and aristocratic pretension in the WH increased each year of his presidency. By 1840, newspaper slurs on Van Buren as a princely pretender escalated and the continuing agony of the Panic made good copy in the Whig press.

On the afternoon of April 14, 1840, the House of Representatives sat as a committee to hear a prepared address by Charles Ogle, a Whig from Somerset, Pa., on the subject of President Van Buren and his “palatial” White House. One of the president’s supporters refuted the allegation, but then Ogle unleashed a dramatic rebuttal. This time he kept the house floor for three days and by the second day, the galleries were packed with spectators. This highly unusual attack made Ogle famous and printed copies of his remarks were circulated, first around the Capitol and then nationally by most newspapers. It was a devastating indictment of a president.

Martin Van Buren was too seasoned a politician to lose his temper, but his detachment from the storm of protest against him by the Whigs surprised even his closest friends.

When it came time for the 1840 election, the Whigs took a cue from the Jacksonians of 1828 and drafted a common-man hero – General William Henry Harrison. By then, sentiment had turned against Van Buren and he was defeated. A record number of citizens voted, 2.5 million, with Van Buren losing by 150,000. In the Electoral College, it was worse, with Harrison capturing 19 of the 26 states.

For all the bitterness of the campaign, Van Buren was determined not to be a poor loser. He not only witnessed Harrison’s oath-taking, but was among the first to shake his hand. The “Little Magician” offered every courtesy, gaining the admiration of a skeptical press. He left Washington by train. However, it was not his intention to be gone forever. He would try to regain the presidency in the next two elections.

Despite his efforts, he would never live in the White House again.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

President Tyler’s Extreme Use of His Veto Alienated Political Leaders

As vice president, John Tyler assumed the presidency after William Henry Harrison’s death shortly after taking office. Tyler served the remaining three years and 11 months of Harrison’s term.

By Jim O’Neal

The election year of 1844 found President John Tyler in the awkward position of having no political party willing to nominate him for re-election. Tyler’s extreme use of his veto pen had alienated the Whigs, who were exasperated with his stubbornness and unwillingness to negotiate.

Earlier in February, the president, his cabinet members and several hundred prominent individuals (including Dolley Madison) were on the new steam-powered warship the USS Princeton when a gun’s celebratory shot exploded. When the smoke cleared, eight men lay dead, including Secretary of State Abel Upshur, Secretary of the Navy Thomas Gilmer and ex-New York Senator David Gardiner.

Tyler ordered the bodies taken to the White House and laid in state in the East Room, where the funerals were held before burial in the Congressional Cemetery. Gardiner’s daughter Julia had been carried from the ship by President Tyler and chose to stay on at the White House to fully recuperate. Tyler’s first wife Letitia was the first First Lady to die in the White House and the president struck up a relationship with (the now-wealthy) Julia Gardiner. They were married four months later on June 16, 1844, causing quite a stir in the social circles of Washington. Tyler was 54 and Julia was 30 years younger. Over the years, she would bear seven children to join the eight from the earlier marriage.

Meanwhile, the Democratic National Convention in Baltimore was deadlocked between Martin Van Buren and Lewis Cass of Michigan. Then they received word that James Knox Polk was former President Andrew Johnson’s choice and so “Young Hickory” Polk was picked unanimously on the ninth ballot. When Polk’s nomination was flashed from Baltimore to Washington by Samuel F.B. Morse’s telegraph – the first official use of this new communication tool – Washington observers were sure the instrument had failed because the news was not plausible. Henry Clay, the Whig nominee, sarcastically asked, “Who is James K. Polk?”

It was a close contest, but Polk became the first “Dark Horse” candidate to win and the only Speaker of the House (ever) to be elected president. The 49-year-old Polk was also the youngest man to ever become president – to that time – when he took the oath of office on a rainy March 4, 1845. However, three days earlier on March 1, Congress passed a joint House-Senate resolution approving the annexation of Texas and Tyler signed it. And on his last day in office, Tyler also signed legislation admitting Florida as the 27th state.

On the same day, March 3, Congress mustered enough votes (two-thirds in each house) to override one of Tyler’s vetoes … the first time in history a presidential veto had been overridden. Immediately after Polk’s inauguration, Tyler and his family left for Virginia. Two days later, the Mexican minister to Washington filed a protest, calling the annexation of Texas an “act of aggression.” Mexico broke off diplomatic relations and the Mexican War soon followed.

Welcome to Washington, Mr. President.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Tilden a Brilliant Intellectual on Path to the Presidency

An engraved portrait of Samuel J. Tilden, about 10 by 8 inches on card, went to auction in September 2001.

By Jim O’Neal

Samuel J. Tilden got robbed in the 1876 presidential election.

But then again, his life was full of conflicts and ironies:

  • A brilliant intellectual with a tired, battle-worn body at age 62
  • Intense loyalty to the Democratic Party that was crushed by prosecuting the Boss Tweed gang in NYC
  • A cold, unapproachable man that tens of thousands of Americans revered for his reform efforts
  • A hypochondriac who was always searching for medicines and cures, but with the stamina to work healthy men to exhaustion

His legal practice and shrewd investments made him both rich and influential. He managed the finances for many friends, relatives and political allies … including Martin Van Buren.

In 1848, he helped ex-President Van Buren snag the Free Soil Party nomination for president (he lost), and in the process helped ensure the election of the Whig Zachary Taylor.

Tilden (1814-1886) became the 25th governor of New York in 1875 … and then immediately took on the Canal Gang that was systematically robbing the state through fraudulent construction and maintenance on the New York State Canal System.

His success earned him the 1876 Democratic nomination for president … ugh.

To be continued …

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].