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James K Polk was the most efficient president in the history of the United States of America

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Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 3/22/2013 Category: Miscellaneous
Updated: 3 years ago Status: Post Voting Period
Viewed: 2,753 times Debate No: 31579
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I am asserting that the eleventh president of the United States, James Knox Polk, was the most efficient president in United States History. If you are going to debate this, you must offer a different president whom you can defend as being more efficient

efficient-performing or functioning in the best possible manner with the least waste of time and effort; having and using requisite knowledge, skill, and industry.

For round one simply accept and offer your president

Try to avoid semantics, trolling, etc. Be reasonable.


Franklin D. Roosevelt is my choice.
Debate Round No. 1


Thank you for accepting this debate

My selection of James K Polk as the most efficient president in the history of America's history is based on the fact that he accomplished so much in a short amount of time. Yet, because of his short term he is often overlooked in the grander scheme of American history. He actually made several important contributions to America during his years.

Here are his accomplishments

1) Tariff Reduction
Tariffs are an issue that has been present on America's political stage ever since its inception, and the years of Polk's administration were no different. Before James K Polk had been in office, the tariff had been raised substantially, and the democrats wanted to see the tariff lowered. In 1846, Polk signed the Walker Tariff into law, lowering the rate of the tariff. The new tariff was a quiet success that is often disregarded by history. It created an increase in the amount of trade America saw, most notably with Britain (This will be important later). This increase in trade also brought about an increase of revenue for the treasury(1) While not the most exciting of topics, Polk's tariff reduction was a very important step in his presidency

2) Independent treasury
The creation of an independent treasury in 1846 was another quite, yet important act under Polk's administration. Back then, the banking system was in shambles. There had been two national banks of the United States, the first one created after the revolution (and having its charter expire in 1811)(2), and the second created in 1812 and expiring in 1836.(3) A major controversy erupted between democrats and Whigs over the banking issue. The national bank came into often conflict between itself and state/local banks, and in 1836 it was not renewed. The Panic of 1837 ensued, causing commerce to fail throughout the country. By Polk's time, the Whigs wanted to create a third national bank, while
democrats wantin an independent treasury. Polk created in 1846 the Independent Treasury, which was meant to correct the issues the American banking system had at the time. The number of banks actually rose during this time, as did their deposits and circulation(4). Not very exciting, but important nonetheless.

3) Territorial expansion
This was Polk's most important action as president, and he did quite a bit in this field. After Texas was absorbed into the United States, it became apparent that conflict with Mexico would arise. The Mexicans felt as though they had been slighted through the affair. That said, they still retained a large amount of land in America, including what is now California, Nevada, New Mexico, etc.

Polk was a supporter of Manifest Destiny. He saw the expansion of America in the continent as a major priority, and knew he would have to go through Mexico to do it. After a brief skirmish on the Mexican border, the Mexican American War began. While the merits of the war itself are flimsy, the reward for this was not. the Americans won the war fairly decisively, and in 1848 the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed. This treaty handed over present day California, Nevada, Utah, parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Colorado and Wyoming to the United States(5). This is a huge expansion of territory, only rivaled by the Louisiana Purchase a few decades earlier. The border dispute between Texas was finally fixed at the Rio Grande. Gaining this territory was a huge step forward for America's future.

He also is responsible for acquiring the Oregon Territory. The British and Americans had disputed what is today Oregon, Idaho, and Washington for years. It had become sore spot in the relation between the nations since he War of 1812. Polk was able to have the border drawn at 49th parallel.(6) This wasn't the full territory he had hoped for, but he did manage to gain a substantial amount of land anyway. This didn't make relations with Britain much better, however the increased trade as a result of the lowered tariff did help to make the transition more amicable.

All these actions would have been a great accomplishment for any president, however the most amazing part of his presidency is that he did it all in one term. After the completion of his first term, he decided not to run for a second one. Part of the reason was that he had done so much that he was worn out from the job, but a major reason was that he had done everything he had set out to do. Why should he run for a second term if he had accomplished all of his goals?

This is why Polk is the most efficient president we have ever had. Was he the best? No. The most famous? Not by any means. But he did more in his four years than any other president did in their first term, and he even accomplished more than some two term presidents. He did all he needed to do in a short amount of time, making him America's most efficient president ever.



1) Tariff Reduction

The Federal Government in the time of Polk was very small. Compared to today's massive machine, the nuances of the tariffs were minor.

When viewed in the context of history, the changes made by the Polk administration were minor. Study the historical list of tariffs by year on Wikipedia[1], as follows:

1792 -- 15.10%
1795 -- 8.00%
1800 -- 10.00%
1805 -- 10.70%
1810 -- 10.10%
1815 -- 6.50%
1820 -- 20.20%
1825 -- 22.30%
1830 -- 35.00%
1835 -- 14.20%
1840 -- 12.70%
1845 -- 24.30% James K Polk
1850 -- 22.90% James K Polk
1855 -- 20.60%
1860 -- 15.00%
1863 -- 25.90%
1864 -- 32.30%
1865 -- 35.60%
1870 -- 44.60%
1875 -- 36.10%
1880 -- 27.60%
1885 -- 32.60%
1890 -- 27.60%
1900 -- 27.40%
1910 -- 15.00%
1913 -- 17.60%

2) Independent treasury

Although revolutionary for its time, there were inherent problems with the Independent Treasury. "In periods of prosperity, revenue surpluses accumulated in the Treasury, reducing hard money circulation, tightening credit, and restraining even legitimate expansion of trade and production. In periods of depression and panic, when banks suspended specie payments and hard money was hoarded, the government"s insistence on being paid in specie tended to aggravate economic difficulties by limiting the amount of specie available for private credit.[2]"

3a) Territorial Expansion Overview

President Jefferson made the Louisiana Purchase with somewhat questionable value to the United States today.
The geography of this, and of Polk's territorial acquisitions, deserves more description than my opponent gives. One needs to see on the map of the USA the size of all territorial acquisitions.[3]
Note also that Polk did little to develop the new land acquisitions. And the future of the acquisitions in retrospect were quite dim.
What is the value of this expansion to the desert? The East Coast was in possession of the united states. Coastal waters have value above landlocked areas.
Look at where industry is. The coast.[4]
Look at where the people are. The coast.[5]
Further inland you have farmland, but think how much of the Midwest is desert. The land was bad.
Note that the Eastern United States is near the Gulf Stream, which brings rain. This was, and is, necessary to sustain life. This is one possible explanation why the United States population is in the Eastern half of the United States. Where is the center? Plato, Missouri.[6]

3c) Manifest Destiny

A quaint idea from a past era. Empire building is no longer in vogue.
"Referencing the Mexican-American War, General Ulysses S. Grant stated that "I was bitterly opposed to the [Texas annexation], and to this day regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory."[7]
Compare to the conquests of the Ottoman Empire[8]
Silicoln Valley and Las Vegas could have arisen elsewhere.

3d) One term presidency

This should not be taken as an indication of efficiency. A president who is efficient for one term is very eligible for reelection.

James K. Polk was on his deathbed at the end of his presidency. He died 103 days after leaving office.

Franklin D. Roosevelt
In the top three presidents, by most rankings.[9] Chosen because everyone knows about Washington and Lincoln.
1) Great depression

The backdrop to Roosevelt's presidency is the worst economic time in United States history. He decreased the terrible unemployment rate by offering government jobs, making best use of the workforce as possible.[10]

2) Regulation of banking

Due to the state of crisis, fast action was required. Many decisions in a short amount of time could be considered efficient.
The Glass"Steagall Act established the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), which insured deposits.[10]
This banking reform offered unprecedented stability: While throughout the 1920s more than five hundred banks failed per year; it was less than ten banks per year after 1933.[10]

3) Regulation of the Stock Market

The Securities Act of 1933 is also known as the "Truth in Securities Act" and the "Federal Securities Act", or just the "1933 Act." Its goal is to increase public trust in the capital markets by requiring uniform disclosure of information about public securities offerings.[11]

4) Avoidance of War

Delayed war for 3 years while the rest of the world was in battle.

5) Summary of Presidency

"Roosevelt's New Deal Coalition united labor unions, big city machines, white ethnics, African Americans and rural white Southerners. He also influenced the later creation of the United Nations and Bretton Woods. Roosevelt is consistently rated by scholars as one of the top three U.S. Presidents, along with Abraham Lincoln and George Washington."[12]

"In his first hundred days in office, which began March 4, 1933, Roosevelt spearheaded major legislation and issued a profusion of executive orders that instituted the New Deal."[12]

Debate Round No. 2


You made some very good points. I will first address your rebuttal toward my points before addressing yours.

1) Tariff
Yes the Federal Government at Polk's time was much smaller, and FDR himself did a lot to expand his own abilities as president. Polk's tariff reduction was moderate, however the important part was that it worked. He may not have had the lowest tariff in US history, however he didn't have to in order to create an effective tariff rate. Trade was stimulated and the treasury gained significant revenues as a result of the increased tariff(1). An important factor in determining efficiency is effectiveness, and the tariff was effective for its time. And to say that the tariff was not an important issue compared to today's "massive machine" is not necessarily true. We must keep in mind that the scope of government changed greatly between the administrations of James K Polk and FDR. However, for its time, tariffs were an economic issue which helped to create a divide between the industrial north and the agrarian south and west. It carried a good amount of significance for the economic state of the United States.

2) Independent Treasury
The Treasury System was flawed upon its inception, you are correct. However, there had been numerous problems with the previous National Banks which preceded the Treasury System. For starters, it can be argued that the National Bank was an unconstitutional expansion of government power(2) (Mculloch v Maryland affirmed the bank's right to exist, however this was the decision of the Marshall court, and Marshall was an avid supporter of federal supremacy). The treasury wasn't perfect but at least it was significant nonetheless.

3) Territorial expansion
Yes the East has more than the West in regard to population and industry. However this fact does not mean that the West is not an important area. Many Western cities are vibrant economically and in terms of population, including Seattle, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, etc. True he did little to develop this new land, but considering he was fresh off a major war and that he had only a year left, this is not surprising or lazy on his part. And the merits of Manifest Destiny in this debate are irrelevant. All that truly matters is what Polk gained for the United States, which is the entire Southwest and the Pacific Coast

I disagree that his one term is irrelevant. When comparing his presidency to anyone else, especially a president who served 3 full terms, he is at an obvious disadvantage if all that is counted is a list of accomplishments. What Polk did was remarkable considering the time span. One could only imagine what he would have done if he had had the lifespan and the desire to serve the same time as Franklin Roosevelt.

Franklin D Roosevelt was a good president in his own right, however to say he was the most efficient in history may be a result of a certain historical "hype", so to speak.

1) Depression
it is unquestionable that FDR's New Deal offered some assistance to the failing economy, but by how much? The unemployment rate did drop from 23% when he first took office, but after that it flat lines at around 10%(3), which is still an uncomfortably high number. He also provided many temporary relief jobs in his New Deal, the operative word being temporary. Did it help? Unquestionably. But it didn't save us from the depression. For that we ought to thank World War 2. The New Deal was also extremely costly, totaling at 50 million dollars.(4) (That was when 50 million dollars was a lot of money for the government to spend) The New Deal was at best a temporary fix to a bigger problem

Banking and Securities 2 and 3
I will not argue the validity of these points. They are valid, as I am not arguing that FDR had a poor presidency. He did enact some important pieces of legislation, these two being prime examples. I will concede these two

4) War
Simply avoiding war does not truly count as doing anything. He simply did not get us involved in a European conflict, other than passively supporting England via Lend-Lease. FDR was more concerned with domestic affairs rather than the turmoil in Europe at the time of his presidency. His delaying of the war was the result of America's isolationist tendency of the time, bringing about the Neutrality Acts(5) which simply declared Neutrality in the face of growing world conflict.

5) Summary of presidency

FDR is not by any means a "bad president". He had several reforms which made impacts in their own right and helped to ease the depression. However, there is another side to this action. FDR's New Deal is a large amalgamation of federal intervention to solve a depression. Some programs created temporary and at times useless jobs, such as the CWA.(6) Many other portions ran into significant battles with the Supreme Court. Almost every piece of legislation was questioned by the court(7), and many pieces, including the AAA and the NIRA(8), were declared unconstitutional. FDR even at one point attempted to pass a bill adding 6 justices to the Supreme Court, a gross violation of America's values on checks and balances.

FDR did many things under the New Deal, however the actual effectiveness of these reforms is questionable. Unemployment dropped, the economy improved, but only at smaller increments until the outbreak of World War 2 for America. The New Deal was also a large bill to pay for the US, one that it still hasn't fully paid off(4).The fact is that while FDR managed to pass some good legislation as president, his record is awash in honestly mediocre results and unconstitutional proposals. Some even theorize that the New Deal in fact prolonged the Depression through such massive government regulation. (A side note: He is found on several lists as one of America's most overrated presidents.(9))

Also, FDR had a massive term of 12 years. In regard to his efficiency, he spent most of that time with a stuttering economy which could only be considered successful when compared to the complete failure that his predecessor created. I am hard pressed to say that he was very efficient in his policies as president. Many of his acts didn't even pass the Supreme Court.

That said he deserves much credit for being a public figure around which America could unite. But that is more about appearance and press coverage than his actual actions. I think he was definitely a good president in his own right, with some landmark pieces of legislation. However, in terms of efficiency, Polk has him covered.

It is important to note the difference in the executive office between these two presidents. At Polk's time, the position carried much less influence and power as it did with FDR. FDR increased his own power greatly. This puts FDR at a historical advantage in terms of accomplishments. Considering what Polk had to work with, I would contend that he was more efficient than FDR. (or anyone else for that matter)

Thank you again for taking this debate.



Interesting topic. Good debate. Best of luck.
Debate Round No. 3
1 comment has been posted on this debate.
Posted by wildcard173 3 years ago
Personally, at the moment, I would not say it would be Polk. I think I might choose Thomas Jefferson, but because I do not know enough about Polk and because I don't think I possess the knowledge to undertake this debate I am excited to see someone knowledgeable present his/her arguements. I think this debate would be a great chance to learn a little more about our nation's past and presidents so I hope someone accepts this challenge.
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