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James K. Polk

Speaker of the House

Battle of the Bank

Speaker of the House, page 2

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At age thirty-nine, Polk now stood for reelection as a veteran congressmen, with more than a decade of public service under his belt. He had made a name for himself with his even, fair and polite tactics and his opinion was respected by friends and foes alike.

The 1835 congressional election in Tennessee took on special national significance. Three incumbents–Davy Crockett, John Bell and James K. Polk–all had national aspirations, and with President Jackson's term about to wrap up, it was hard to say what would come the following year during the presidential election. The political winds in Tennessee, Jackson's home state, would have much to say about how the election shaped up nationally. Crockett's stunning defeat was read as a sign of waning anti-Jacksonian feelings and similarly Polk's overwhelming victory appeared to be a strong endorsement of Jackson. Bell won a victory for the anti-Jacksonians by being reelected.

As Congress reassembled, Jackson decided that Polk should be Speaker of the House. When Old Hickory explained that he wanted Polk to be the party's candidate for the post, the party was left with little choice but to comply. The next day, in the opening voting, John Bell lost handily and Polk became the speaker. Jackson's forces had won again. The factional effort to nominate Hugh Lawson White for president in place of Martin Van Buren cooled and Alabama even withdrew its prior nomination for White. Bell, though, remained a threat to Polk and the two men skirmished throughout Polk's time as speaker.

Despite a massive Democratic majority, Polk's session as speaker is remembered as one of the messiest and stormiest times in Congress. Jackson's enemies (and, by extension, Polk's enemies) had rallied together to block every move by the administration. Bell and other congressmen constantly tried to undermine Polk's authority by questioning decisions and raising obscure parliamentary challenges. However, Polk's attention to detail paid off and he knew the rules of debate cold, meaning that despite more parliamentary challenges in his term than had ever been offered in Congress before, he was only overruled by the House once–on an issue where he had ruled in favor of an opponent.

Polk's enemies then tried to upend him using the slavery issue. They presented a petition outlawing slavery in the District of Columbia. Other petitions followed, each disrupting the House and causing impassioned arguments on both sides of the issue. He settled on a controversial way to prevent further disruptions: Any and all petitions relating to abolition were referred to a special committee rigged by Polk to ensure that none of the petitions ever arrived on the floor again. While solving the problem and allowing the House to continue its work, the move angered both pro- and anti-slavery factions.

The slavery issue had been growing in contention for a long time. Abolitionist newspapers rallied supporters in northern cities, and the "underground railroad" helped escaped slaves make it to Canada and freedom. Southern plantation owners argued that slavery was necessary for the production of cotton and they held strong to the decades-old custom. For his part, Polk feared what would happen if the factional divisions were allowed to fester and grow. He saw the preservation of the Union as paramount in his work and since the congressional petitions threatened it, he wanted to rid them from his work.

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