“It’s your ‘Fifty-four-forty or fight’ guy. He’s the one who coined the term.”
“Ah, the expansionist war monger. That’s whose home you want to visit?” Jock asked me over the rim of a beer can.
Jock had proposed an overnight road trip to Rutherford County, NC, to see the Edwards family, including the real-life Kudzu Queen, Matriarch Edith Edwards. It had been five years since we sat together in the cab of the pick-up truck.
It is mostly my fault: I created a world where it is very hard for me to be gone from my obligations. Or the dogs. I don’t like being away from the dogs, but it was just for one night and it happened to be in the middle of the week—so the stars aligned.
“But if we are heading that way, is there any way we could visit on the NC State Historic Sites?” I asked. “The James K. Polk birthplace is pretty much on the way.”
Polk was the 11th president of the Untied States and born in what is now Pineville, NC. The North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources manages the State Historic Site which occupies 21 acres of land just south of Charlotte.
One of Jock’s favorite expressions to reference is “Fifty-four-forty or fight!”—a rallying cry to move the US Canadian border up to what is essentially the base of Alaska. In the early 19th-century, America was focused upon expansion: The Louisiana Purchase, The Florida Territory, and the overwhelming attitude of land acquisition known as “Manifest Destiny.” The War of 1812—which most Americans have forgotten but Canadians still fight the same way we still dissect the Civil War—yielded several results: The British burned Washington D.C., The Star Spangled Banner was written, and the border for the British and American settlements was settled.
In the West the area known as “The Oregon Territory” (Remember The Oregon Trail game? Yep, that’s what we are talking about) was divvied up between British and American control. For the sake of simplicity, we are going to compress a couple of years and several treaties down to this…
49th parallel and below: American.
Above the 49th parallel: British.
That’s a hyper simplification, but let’s go with it.
Our friend, Mr. Polk, did not expect to run for president. Still, he found himself nominated and—in a move that would prove successful—focused a campaign around war mongering and American dominance rather than really discussing domestic policy issues. Now, in his defense, the ports in California would prove incredibly valuable and ultimately worth the Mexican-American War. But did we really need to control all of the land up in Pacific Northwest up to 54’40? Well, no. Not really, but campaign slogans aren’t really intended to be government policy. Yet, we keep falling for them and failing to pay attention to what our elected officials are actually doing when we are distracted.
“Holy shit—if I’d been driving, we would have flipped the truck. I am sorry, sweetheart!”
“Well, if you’d been driving the bus, yes, we’d be pulling you out of the ditch,” Jock shook his head. “That turn was fast and not well-marked.”
We followed the drive up to the visitor’s center, a low mid-century building with an American flag at half-mast. Inside we were welcomed like old friends by a lovely young lady with a beaming smile who directed us to an exhibit about James Polk’s life and world. A few minutes later she announced a guided tour of the cabins would begin shortly if we wanted to join.
The Polk family actually moved from the Mecklenburg area to Tennessee rather early in James’ life; though, he came back to go to school at UNC. The cabins at the birthplace are reconstruction, and were finished and opened to the public in a ceremony that Lady Bird Johnson attended. Our tour guide was helpful and informative, and though the site obviously wants to present the Polk family in the best light possible, it doesn’t gloss over realities of life on the edge of North Carolina in the days of the early republic.
“The part I still don’t understand is how they managed this farm with two women as house slaves to care for the house and raise the children, and two men as field hands.”
I shook my head.
“I mean, I understand this is smaller than the big plantations toward the coast, but we are still talking about hundreds of acres that primarily produced a cash crop, and they are on a major trading path—that’s why they are located here. That just doesn’t seem like a realistic labor force for farming largely by hand.”
“We can ask Duncan when we see him; he might have a better idea,” Jock suggested.
The Edwards family had farmed in Rutherford County since George III was on the throne.
Duncan suggested, come planting and harvesting time, the local farmers probably pooled their resources and visited each other’s places to help with the annual activities. Still, I looked around to try and compare similar places I had visited closer to the coast.
The tour guide pointed out the Polk cabin had several features of luxury for that time: real glass windows, for example, and interior wood paneling that provided an extra layer of insulation and more finished look. I couldn’t help but compare it to the Burgwin-Wright House. Though, the Burgwin-Wright House was the townhouse of a family with large plantation holdings in the country—and Polk’s was the primary residence of a farming family. Trying to compare their economic resources seemed rather absurd. Still, the Polks built a bridge over the river and charged a toll to use their bridge. Even though they moved on to Tennessee, the ties to North Carolina remained strong.
“So are you glad you visited your war-monger?” Jock asked.
“Well,” I conceded. “Mexican-American War and the War of 1812 were not particularly hip, but nonetheless they did shape the geography and direction of the country.”
I struggle so much with viewing history through the lens of today. The things I consider abhorrent to Polk were not at the time. I don’t really think I would have the grit necessary to survive on the fringe of North Carolina in those days.
The growth of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg area is exponential (and aggressive). Looking around the Polk birthplace kinda feels like visiting out in the country. They have done a wonderful job of shielding as much of it as possible with trees. It feels like a space out of time, but a big piece of what the Polk birthplace is trying to communicate is growth, expansion, the trajectory the area has been set upon for hundreds of years. The area began as a trading center and has grown as a result of that.
“Yes, I am glad we visited,” I nodded to Jock. “I understand more now. I just don’t understand how to move forward. Perhaps that will come later.”