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James Polk as a Wartime Commander-In-Chief
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Polk was surrounded by a cabinet that was considered to be one of the most competent of the post-Civil War era, a group which included Secretary of State James Buchanan, Secretary of the Treasury Robert J Walker, Secretary of the Navy George Bancroft, and Secretary of War William L Marcy. These men represented nearly every faction of the Democratic Party. While they served in the Polk administration, they gave up any presidential ambitions, a move that was intended to limit tensions within the party. These decisions paralleled President Polk's commitment to serve only one term. Within this group, President Polk exerted strict control over any and all courses of action. He was considered to be an extremely creative administrator, and when he introduced an executive budget, he was able to streamline the monetary operations in many departments, causing significant financial savings.
One of the most important aspects of his administrative actions was the passage of an independent federal treasury. This system, in which the government received and paid its debts, remains the basis of the American banking system prior to the Federal Reserve Act in 1913. In addition, the passage of the Walker Tariff was accomplished by Polk's commitment to a low tariff, the rates of which were not largely altered until the Civil War. In addition, the Polk administration created the Department of the Interior, the U.S. Naval Academy, the Smithsonian Institute, and reaffirmed the legitimacy of the Monroe Doctrine.
Undoubtedly, President James Polk's personality traits--stubbornness, aggressiveness, and self-confidence--were instrumental factors in his successes on the battlefield and legislatively. During the war with Mexico, however, these traits likely utilized the wrong approaches in dealing with Mexico. His bullying manner was offensive to the Mexicans, their sense of dignity, and it only made them fight harder, even while engaged in a losing cause. A successful diplomat needs to have the qualities of strength and flexibility, as well as being able to adjust to the needs of each situation. In addition, a diplomat must also have the ability to understand the point of view of the opposition. It appears that President Polk may have lacked these qualities and instead, may not have had respect for the entire practice of diplomacy. As a result, the country engaged in a war that lasted for nearly two years, cost nearly 13,000 American lives and used up more than $100,000. Certainly, the concrete results of the war were that the United States gained about 1.2 million square miles of land, a land area that equaled more than one third of its current land mass. These acquisitions permitted the nation to take a large step towards becoming a world superpower, on equal footing with Britain, France, and Russia, older countries who prized strength.
On the other hand, however, there were certainly tremendous drawbacks to the war as well. The United States' relationship with Latin America, in which the United States had formerly been viewed as a democratic society that provided a model for justice and a strong, compassionate government, suffered greatly. While the United States had typically been seen as a nation that tended to brag about its power, the US-Mexican War only reinforced this perception, with the accomplishments of the American troops providing a foreshadowing of things to come. One of the most negative outcomes of the war was a continued scar of sectionalism that existed within the country, with the issue of slavery becoming ever more prominent as an internal conflict in the young nation. Perhaps if President Polk had been more of a believer in diplomacy, the decidedly mixed results of the war could have been prevented. President Polk played a tremendous role in laying the groundwork for the nature of the president's role as commander-in-chief; in the conducting of the war, his utilization of military power served as a model for future presidents. He assumed full responsibility for the manner in which the war was waged, took the leading role in obtaining war legislation and financing, made decisions on military strategy, appointed generals and designed their instructions, took charge of supply chain and provided coordination between the various government bureaus and cabinet departments. He was involved in every single decision that was made regarding the direction in which the war was being waged.
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