James Polk (1845 to 1849): Transportation, Slavery and States Rights

This article is a part of our series From Lighthouses to Electric Chargers: A Presidential Series on Transportation Innovations

Before the civil war, the term “states rights” was often synonymous with slavery, and it directly related to federal policies regarding transportation improvements.

Many southerners feared a strong federal government would threaten slavery. James Polk, who grew up in North Carolina and Tennessee, was a member of the Democrat-Republican Party and followed in the footsteps of Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren, opposing attempts to expand the federal government’s role in transportation. They clashed on this issue with Whig Party leaders such as John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay.

Polk was a slaveholder, just as his father and grandfather had been. When he was sworn in as Tennessee governor in 1839, he argued, “No power has been conferred upon the federal government, either by express grant or necessary implication, to take cognizance of, or in any manner or to any extent to interfere with, or to act upon the subject of domestic slavery, the existence of which in many of the states is expressly recognized by the Constitution.”

As president, he continued to purchase slaves for his Mississippi cotton plantation, although he did go to great lengths to keep it a secret. Many, if not most, of the slaves he purchased while president were torn apart from their families and some were as young as ten years old. He preferred purchasing younger slaves because they could work for more years and if they had any children, they would also be his “property.”

As the 11th president of the U.S., James Polk expressed his support for a strict adherence to the constitution and a high regard for the rights of the states. He accepted the long-standing practice of establishing light-houses, beacons, and buoys on oceans to render navigation safer and provide protection for the Navy and private ships. That policy dated back to George Washington. But Polk was adamant that Congress could not and should not undertake most other types of transportation initiatives. He even argued that clearing out and deepening rivers, a role the federal government had first taken on in 1824, should be abandoned.

When it came to transportation, arguably, no other U.S. president in U.S. history had a more limited perspective of the federal government’s role. Ironically, as he tried to keep its role in check, he oversaw the largest territorial expansion in American history through the annexation of Texas in 1845, the negotiation of the Oregon Treaty with Great Britain, and the conclusion of the Mexican-American War.

Map courtesy of Gomez.

In 1846, Polk vetoed a bill to fund internal improvements relating to harbors and rivers, stating the federal government did not have the power to do so within states. If the states wanted to expand the federal government’s power, he argued, they should amend the constitution.

He warned that funding transportation improvements would lead “to a consolidation of power in the federal government at the expense of the rightful authority of the States.” These expenses would benefit “but few at the expense of the common Treasury of the whole.”

With the question of slavery threatening to tear apart the nation, Polk also expressed concern that debates over which projects to fund would “engender sectional feelings and prejudices calculated to disturb the harmony of the Union. It will destroy the harmony which should prevail in our legislative councils.”

He also worried about incurring expenses that would lead to either increasing debt or taxes. “Should this bill become a law, the principle which it establishes will inevitably lead to large and annually increasing appropriations and drains upon the Treasury, for it is not to be doubted that numerous other localities not embraced in its provisions, but quite as much entitled to the favor of the Government as those which are embraced, will demand, through their representatives in Congress, to be placed on an equal footing with them.”

Polk would undoubtedly have considered the federal government’s current role in transportation as wasteful and extravagant. The 1846 bill would have provided $500,000 to improve rivers and harbors. By comparison, the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, authorized $1.2 trillion, 68,000 times more than the bill vetoed by Polk, even after accounting for inflation.

While President Polk did not want the federal government to interfere with navigation on the Great Lakes, today the federal government gets involved in hyperlocal issues such as awarding funds to encourage safe walking routes for school children, and setting standards for residential street signage.

In his last year in office, Polk prepared a veto message that laid out an even stronger case against funding transportation improvements. Although he never needed to use it, he was so proud of the document that he referred to it one of the “ablest papers I have ever prepared” and preserved it with his other valuable papers now residing at the Library of Congress.

This article is a part of our series From Lighthouses to Electric Chargers: A Presidential Series on Transportation Innovations

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