You may have seen the recent news story about the re-reburial of James K. Polk, the 11th president. You may have then thought “Who even was that dude?”* For many Americans, there’s a stretch of 19th century presidents, broken only by Lincoln and maybe Andrew Jackson, who remain generally unknown. Why is this?
The Simpsons had one answer. They categorized these presidents as “mediocre,” as “caretaker presidents,” as “adequate, forgettable, occasionally regrettable.” Poor (Zachary) Taylor, (John) Tyler, (Millard) Fillmore, and (Rutherford B.) Hayes get mocked, along with William Henry Harrison (I died in thirty days!).
Polk, along with Pierce, Van Buren, Arthur, and W.H. Harrison’s grandson Benjamin didn’t even merit inclusion. Yet all of them did important things, and saw significant changes take place under their administration. Polk, for instance, oversaw significant territorial expansion, including the Oregon Territory and a massive cession of land as a result of the war he initiated with Mexico.
Despite this, 19th century presidents weren’t as powerful as 20th and 21st century presidents, and that wasn’t because of any personal failings. It was by design. America’s first constitution, the Articles of Confederation, had no real executive at all. While the subsequent 1787 Constitution (the first iteration of the one we have now) did provide for a stronger central government with a real executive branch, it was still nothing like today.
It’s not too hard to understand why the first generations of Americans were skeptical of a powerful executive, given some of the reasons behind the separation from England. Their lack of representation in Parliament was remedied by the creation of the federal legislature, but when it came to an executive, many Americans were still concerned with the potential abuses that could result from that much power concentrated in one man.
Just as Americans fought about whether the federal or state government should have more power, they fought about the limits of the executive branch’s power over domestic and even foreign policy. The reason we remember Senator Henry Clay and Senator John C. Calhoun rather than President Martin Van Buren and President James K. Polk is because senators and representatives were members of the branch of government their contemporaries saw as more important to a healthy republic.
How did we get to where we are now? It wasn’t a smooth or sudden change, but rather something like stretching out pizza dough. Late 19th and early 20th century expansions of executive power expanded and then contracted, but never contracted all the way. The Cold War, and the rise of the national security apparatus to facilitate it, stretched the executive ball of dough out to something like the shape it’s in now, and baked it into our national consciousness.
*It’s not enough to say “Well, Polk only served one term!” He got a lot done in that one term, and anyway, Carter only served one term and we remember him.