Polk’s Expansion of Presidential Power

James Polk. By: George Peter Alexander Healy. (Detail).

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was the culmination of the Mexican-American War and “embodied the objectives for which [President James] Polk had gone to war.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 808.

President Polk, during the course of the Mexican-American War, discovered the contours of presidential power. He “had successfully discovered the latent constitutional powers of the commander in chief.” Id. He found that a president could single-handedly “provoke a war, secure congressional support for it, shape the strategy for fighting it, appoint generals, and define the terms of peace.” Id.

Other presidents, like President Andrew Jackson before President Polk, have been remembered by history as expanding the power of the president. See id. In fact, it could be argued that President Polk expanded presidential power as much as any other president in American history. See id.

Future wartime presidents would look in retrospect to past wartime presidents, and President Polk had, by his own actions, put himself on that list of wartime presidents. These developments had massive consequences for the future of the executive branch and the future of government.

Imagining a president that does not project strength and take decisive action during wartime is a frightening thought to most modern Americans. Given a president’s duty to protect the country from outside threats, Americans give their presidents license to take action where appropriate. Americans occasionally even presume the president is correct in his decisions without analyzing the underlying basis for a war.

The precedential value of President Polk’s actions during the Mexican-American War can hardly be overstated. Where once the presidency avoided the optics of acting as a monarch or a tyrant, as was the case under Presidents George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison (and arguably additional presidents), President Polk was taking virtually no precautions.

Once a governmental institution expands its power, in the way the executive office did during President Polk’s administration, it becomes difficult, or at least uncomfortable, to roll back that power. President Polk’s actions, while not inherently problematic, provide a reminder for this principle. Should a president choose to expand his or her power, he or she ought to carefully consider the consequences and necessity of doing so. As innocent as his or her intentions may be, he or she must remember that future presidents, who may lack the scruples of their predecessors, will also be empowered to use, or abuse, that power.

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