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Jockeying for the American Presidency: The Political Opportunism of Aspirants By Lara ...

Chapter :  Introduction: Presidential Aspirant James K. Polk
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Jockeying for the American Presidency:

As the solution to a deadlocked convention, Polk seems to have come out of nowhere on the eighth ballot like the “dark horse” in Benjamin Disraeli's novel The Young Duke, from whence that locution purportedly arose. But as several historians have noted, “While [Polk's] name had not been previously associated with that office, it is not true that he was unknown or that his nomination was entirely accidental. The Baltimore convention did not simply make a grab in the dark with the hope that either Providence or Fate would save the party from disaster.” Andrew Jackson's loyal protégé had spent years cultivating his reputation as a tenacious and discerning politician among members of the Democratic Party. Heading into the convention, Polk was the odds-on favorite to earn the vice presidential nomination. Four years prior, when he was governor of Tennessee, there had even been talk about placing him on the ticket with President Van Buren and displacing Vice President Richard Johnson. Further, before the governorship, Polk had served seven terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, spanning three presidencies (John Quincy Adams, Jackson, and Van Buren). As floor leader and chairman of the Committee on Ways and Means, Polk had been instrumental in Jackson's Bank War in 1833–1834. Even though he had recently lost two close gubernatorial races—a reelection in 1841 by 3,243 votes out of about 100,000 ballots and a rematch in 1843 by 3,833 votes out of about 110,000 ballots—most Democrats admired the painstaking canvass he undertook and the personal sacrifices he made. Hence, Polk was not some political amateur; he was a professional.4

But Polk was more than an experienced politician and loyal partisan who lucked into the Democratic presidential nomination. With help from his mentor (Jackson) and his friends (Cave Johnson, Gideon Pillow, and others), Polk maneuvered into a position from which his selection “as the compromise candidate was quite natural, if not inevitable.” He was able to manage this feat in part because he had previously established himself as the westerner who would best balance Van Buren's eastern credentials. He was already in the mix and he was a favorite of an influential faction (Jackson loyalists). When Texas annexation reshuffled the political deck, Polk was given the opportunity to bolt