James K. Polk and the American presidency
McCoy, Charles Allan
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The Democratic victory in 1844 brought to the office of President of the United States a man who was determined to establish for that position the prerogatives of an independent, equal branch of the government. He accepted without question or doubt all the vast responsibility which the office placed upon his shoulders; he was never willing to say that a Presidential responsibility for a given task rested with Congress, with a member of his cabinet, or with the military. Rather by all his words and deeds he said the responsibility rested with the President. This dissertation has as its thesis a twofold proposition: first, that the Polk administration institutionalized those changes in the American Presidency which have become associated with the Jacksonian-type executive; and, second, as a coordinate thesis, that President Polk in his own right made some significant contributions to the presidency. In reference to the first proposition it has been demonstrated that Polk, in a more direct manner even than Jackson, advocated and acted upon a theory that the executive is directly responsible to the people. Furthermore, Polk controlled the subordinate executive officers of the government with a degree of consistency never equaled by Jackson. Polk as the driving power behind "manifest destiny" represented the great force of his time, as Jackson had been in a similar way the symbol of the growing demands for popular democracy during his administration. Finally, as a political leader, Polk attempted to follow closely in Jackson's pattern, but already the times were demanding a new type of leadership, a dynamic personal leadership of the people, a role which Polk was unable to fill. To demonstrate the second proposition, it is necessary to refer again to Polk's control over the subordinate officials of the executive branch of the government, for in this regard Polk's supervision was so much more pervasive than Jackson's that it really represents a difference in kind rather than degree. Polk established the precedent that as a matter of institutionalized routine it was the right and the responsibility of the President to control and supervise all actions of the executive branch of the government. This was carried to the extent of instituting for the first time a truly executive budget, which reflected the President's choice of goals and administrative objectives. Polk's other major contribution to Presidential development was his domination in a similar fashion of the military. He resolved the constitutional doubt which Madison's inept exercise of the role of commander-in-chief had raised regarding that important Presidential function by demonstrating conclusively in time of war that a civilian without previous military experience could effectively exercise the powers of military command which the Constitution had placed in his hands. The material in this dissertation is presented in terms of the traditional analysis of Presidential authority and operations. As Louis Brownlow reminds us, no cataloging of the various roles that the President plays would satisfy all students of the Presidency. Nevertheless, for purposes of analysis, it seems essential to make such a classification so that the tools of the political scientist can best be brought to bear on the subject. Therefore, chronological order has been sacrificed for analytical clarity, and the dissertation is organized around such themes as Polk's concept of the Presidency and the President as commander-in-chief, chief of foreign affairs, chief legislator, and party chief. In addition to the contemporary works on the Presidency and historical studies of the period the dissertation makes extensive use of Polk's diaries and his personal papers which have been collected at the Library of Congress.
Thesis (Ph.D.)--Boston University
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