Dead President Ethics: The Post Mortem Odyssey Of James K. Polk

James K. Polk is one of my favorite Presidents, in part because he has never received his due for being spectacularly effective, if unwavering ruthless in achieving his goals. By the standards of fulfilling his own stated objectives, a President can’t be more successful than Polk. He pledged to expand U.S. territory to the West, Southwest and North, and did so, then served only one term, as he had promised. Polk also wrote a fascinating diary, essentially an autobiography.

His relative obscurity arises in part because he was a one term President, but primarily because he existed in the shadow of his fellow Tennessean, Andrew Jackson, who was more flamboyant, more influential on more political fronts, and had far more than four years in the spotlight. He was also much taller. Poor Polk lived just three months after leaving office, dying of cholera in 1849, in Nashville. Tennessee. The laws of the time held that those who died of that dread disease be buried within 24 hours to prevent epidemics, so the former President of the United States was  laid to rest in a mass grave less than a year after leaving the White House.

A year later, Polk was removed from the mass grave and buried on the grounds of his Nashville home, Polk Place, in accordance with the will he drew up five months before his death. Polk, a lawyer, stipulated that his body and that of his wife be buried there, and that after his death and his wife’s, the property should be held in trust by the state, which would be bound allow a blood relative to live there. Unfortunately for the dead Polks, the ex-President made a tyro’s drafting gaffe. After Polk’s widow Sarah died in 1891, a court voided the terms of the will because it violated the common-law Rule Against Perpetuities: a property owner can’t bequeath property to unborn future generations. So Polk Place was sold to private interests, eventually razed, and today there is a boutique hotel on the property. On Sept. 19, 1893, Polk’s body and Sarah’s were moved again, to the Nashville grounds of the Capitol.

On a small patch of grass within a stone’s thrwo of the Capitol, the Polks’ grave is lies in a modest but attractive classical monument framed by Greek columns, with an inscription declaring  that Polk “planted the laws of the American union on the shores of the Pacific.” It was designed by William Strickland, the architect who also designed the Capitol itself and George Washington’s sarcophagus at Mount Vernon in Virginia. But Polk’s Jackson problem continues: his gravesite is dwarfed by a nearby equestrian statue of Old Hickory, and tourists virtually ignore it. And while Jackson’s grave at the Hermitage, his family plantation, is a major tourist draw in Nashville, Polk remains—that is Polk’s remains remain—an afterthought. When President Trump visited Nashville last month, he laid a wreath on Jackson’s tomb, and saluted him in a speech. As for the perpetually dissed 11th President, the campaign jeer of the Whig Party running against the first Dark Horse candidate in 1844 apparently remains appropriate: “Who is Polk?”

Now, historians and elected officials want to move Polk for the third time, to the grounds of the small museum dedicated to his memory in Polk’s hometown of Columbia, Tennessee. The Tennessee state Senate recently voted to approve the relocation. The theory is that this will finally get James K. Polk away from that attention hog Andy Jackson, and that it will provide a tourism boost to Columbia. In other words, this is at least partially about money.

Teresa Elam, a seventh-generation niece of Polk, objects. “Every step they take is one step toward grave robbery, ” she told the local press. “It would be like taking someone out of Arlington  and taking them to the family farm and putting them behind the barn.”

James and Sarah, of course, are beyond caring, so the question of what is right, respectful and fair is a conundrum. What is a President’s body? Does it belong to the family, to the state, to the public, the nation, to history, or “to the ages,” as Edwin Stanton memorably said at Abraham Lincoln’s death? Is a fourth grave site in Polk’s interest, to perhaps gain for him the attention his Presidency deserves? Or is it just a venal desecration designed to make Columbia a tourist designation for people like me?


Facts: New York Times, UPI


10 thoughts on “Dead President Ethics: The Post Mortem Odyssey Of James K. Polk

  1. It sounds to me like the proposal to move President Polk to the museum in his home town would give the late President a more “permanent” burial site dedicated to a past President. As long as the entire history of burial sites, including all available documents and photos, is presented to tourists at the burial site at the museum, I think it would be a decent idea. This would give back to the late President the honor he earned, a final resting site solely dedicated in his honor presented to the public as an honorable tourist attraction. This President’d current burial site does not get the appropriate honor he earned being buried on the grounds of the State Capitol it becomes nothing more than another ornament.

    I have no problem with this.

  2. Would not a more appropriate option, given the issue is the dominance of Jackson’s statue nearby, be to give Polk a better and more fitting monument and NOT move his body?

    Can this episode be related even remotely to the falsely resurrected Governor Tarkin episode from a few months ago?

  3. Personally, I’ve never understood the desire to visit a grave-site. You can’t see the bodies, the people who inhabited those bodies have since moved on, and most of the monuments are little more than inscriptions on stone tablets.

    In the words of Mr. Whitman:

    “I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
    I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.

    I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
    If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

    You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
    But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
    And filter and fibre your blood.

    Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
    Missing me one place search another,
    I stop somewhere waiting for you.”

  4. Two of my elementary schooI years were spent in a school named after him. Thanks DC I’ll love to include this story and song in my lesson about Polk! He’s one of my favorite presidents to talk about with students. They have a real sense of fair play and they always feel that he has been unfairly neglected.
    It will be interesting to ask them what they think about moving his grave around.

  5. If even his grave site is overshadowed, it should be upgraded in some way. Mortuary monuments are the last place we can show respect for the accomplishment of a President who did what he said without going nuts in some way. There is honor in the citizen stepping up to serve and stepping down without a fuss. There should be more respect and glory for the service instead of using the groupthink of the masses.

    Moving them to a private space of a museum poses problems. Will there be fees to visit the grave? How established/solvent/endowed is the museum? Museums close, their assets spread out again. He could be moved yet again for roadwork, a hospital, or a more tourist friendly geography, when does it stop? Some museums are able and willing to caretake better than others, and a small museum looking to attention and gate feels more like a stunt than a guardianship. What happens in ten years if the museum folds in deeper obscurity or is run by a Barnum? I love museums, but a burial plot should a place for respect, not be about gate primarily. He’d qualify for and be honored in Arlington as he should, though still overshadowed in that place of respect.

    Moving him to someplace else might be an improvement, but redoing the memorial might be better than that. Maybe an alcove with images of his accomplishments, since people respect more if they can see than read spare words. (annoying that) Jackson has plenty of memorials, including where he’s buried and I would hope neither of them would be petty to begrudge another President’s grave after centuries. The current location is a memorial in a public space for public accomplishments, and each president deserves that respect, even if disliked.

    Being over shadowed happens to many famous people when luck applies to burial plot neighbors. Gettysburg had a lot of famous people and groups who deserve a better memorial. His own arrangements fell through, but I don’t think any leader’s subsequent memorial in a public space should be moved unless there is an extremely compelling reason. Or are they saying that JFK should be moved from Arlington to boost a museum?

  6. It kind of bothers me to see a president’s grave become a tourist attraction. However Richard Nixon’s and Pat’s Nixons graves are outside his presidential library in a enclosed rose garden. But then again, he wanted it that way.

    • Huh?

      By definition, even people coming to pay respects, memorialize or pay homage are tourists also.

      I don’t think tourism is inherently bad. And we can’t axe those who’s motives are sight seeing versus those who are there out of respect. And sight seers may still come back touched.

      • Polk wasn’t a particularly likable president although he was a pretty canny one so I doubt that many people will be touched by visiting his tomb. The Alamo yes unquestionably but Polk’s tomb doubtful.

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