Looking for ways to go wild this weekend? Then think about throwing a big-time 217th birthday bash for one of America’s least known presidents of all time, Mr. James K. Polk, born November 2, 1795. Here are some hosting tips to get you started...
We’ve all been to parties with an overbearing host who insists on being the center of attention. But your posh Polk party demands a self-effacing touch. Be the mysterious, shadowy host that blends into the background. Even at the height of his career, Polk was known for being unknown—particularly outside of the world of politics. In fact, in the 1844 election, Polk’s opponents alluded to his rival’s obscurity with one pithy campaign slogan: “Who is James K. Polk?”
Polk may have been the most available president in United States history. Polk held presidential “office hours” twice a week, during which concerned citizens could drop by to chat. All you had to do was knock on the White House door, present your card to the doorman, and wait your turn. So when you host your posh Polk party, make yourself available to chat with your guests about any party-related questions or concerns.
Polk was a big fan of Wacko Jacko (Old Hickory’s other, lesser-known nickname). In fact, Polk was probably the most Jacksonian president in history—even more devoted to Manifest Destiny than Andrew Jackson himself. Indeed, Polk oversaw the greatest territorial expansion of the United States to date: a one-third increase in land size. So whenever the stress of party planning seems like too much, ask yourself one simple question: What would Jackson do?
Polk’s wife Sarah was a devout Presbyterian who banned dancing, card games, and liquor at White House receptions. In deference to her unwavering convictions, music and dancing were suspended at the inaugural ball, then resumed after she and the president left. These rather strict limitations may sound like bad news for your bash. Look at it this way: You’ll save a ton on entertainment costs. But to ensure that your guests don’t stage a mutiny, you should probably make sure the food’s good.
Remember that sick computer game from elementary school—the one where you had to survive a rough-and-tough wagon ride across the American countryside by fording rivers, hunting bison, and steering clear of dysentery? Without Polk, this groundbreaking diversion might not exist. Polk entered the presidency with the intention of putting an end to Britain’s claims to the Oregon Territory—hence the campaign slogan “54-40 or fight.” Thankfully, the U.S. never actually went to war. Through a combination of military threats and diplomacy, Polk arrived at a compromise with England that fixed the Oregon Territory’s boundary at the 49th parallel. Seeing as basically every form of merrymaking will be prohibited at your bash, you can at least entertain guests with their favorite childhood game. In fact, there’s even a newer 2011 iOS/Android version of this old classic.
Although drinking should be mostly prohibited at your bash, you should definitely break out a bottle of brandy as a tribute to Polk’s bad-assedness. At 17, Polk underwent an operation to have his kidney stones removed. Because anesthesia wasn’t available, Polk was awake during the entire surgery, with nothing but a bit of brandy to dull the pain. The procedure was a success; however, some historians suspect it may have left him sterile.
Polk may have been the hardest working president in history. In fact, he once declared, "No President who performs his duties faithfully and conscientiously can have any leisure.” Right from the get-go, Polk set out to achieve five major goals during the following four years: reestablish an independent treasury; lower the tariff; resolve the dispute with England over Oregon; acquire California; and annex Texas. After only one term, he’d accomplished his ambitious agenda. All that hard work came with a price, though. 53-year-old Polk died three months after leaving office—making his the shortest retirement of any American president. While Polk died of cholera, some historians have suggested that his years of non-stop working may have weakened his body and made him more vulnerable to infection. So be warned: Planning a posh Polk bash requires some serious stamina.
James K. Polk solidified support among his divided Democratic party by promising he wouldn’t run again, thus giving other presidential hopefuls a shot at the presidency. Even despite calls for reelection in after a successful first term, Polk happily threw in the towel after his first four years were up—becoming the first U.S. president to voluntarily retire after one term. Follow Polk’s lead, and make sure your party doesn’t go on indefinitely. To ensure that guests don’t overstay their welcome, establish a non-negotiable end time. Believe it or not, invitees might be more apt to attend if they know they’ve got an excuse to curl up in bed at midnight with the latest episode of The Walking Dead.
Polk is known as the dark horse president—a relative unknown who rose from obscurity to steal the nomination and later the election. Polk’s meteoric rise to fame was launched by intra-party tension. In 1844, the Democrats became embroiled in a nomination battle between former President Martin Van Buren (who’d lost reelection 4 years earlier) and Michigan senator Lewis Cass. While Van Buren won the most votes, he didn’t garner the required 2/3 majority to secure the nomination. When it became obvious that neither he nor Cass would be able to mobilize enough support, Polk was offered up as compromise candidate—a Jacksonian Democrat who supported the annexation of Texas. Polk went on to defeat Whig rival Henry Clay in the general election.
Channel Polk’s dark-horse appeal when planning your bash. Even thought your party may not be the flashiest rager on the block, it might offer an appealing alternative. Just make sure your bash does justice to the memory of the man historians call "America’s least-known consequential president." Because the only other tribute he’s got is a There Might Be Giants song.