When Polk met lens – It Happened Today, February 14, 2017

Ah, the wonders of the steam age. Including that on February 14 back in 1849, James Knox Polk became the first sitting president of the United States to have his photograph taken.

If you’re wondering why he was in office on that date, it’s because prior to the New Deal with its air of constant crisis there was a four-month period between an election and the swearing in of the new president.

Oh, you didn’t mean it that way? You were wondering why somebody called James Polk was ever President? And in his defence I should note first that Polk was elected in 1844 in something of an upset, both as Democratic nominee and then as president, on the pledge to serve only a single term. So he did not run in 1848. (He then enjoyed the shortest retirement of any president, dying of cholera on June 15, 1849.)

Can I say anything else nice about him? Well, he was also elected in part on his pledge to annex Texas which he did, and the United States has generally been better for it. And historians generally credit him with having been a very successful president for having managed to garner support for and pass virtually everything on his agenda. On the other hand, like every other president between roughly John Tyler and James Buchanan, he stands indicted of having failed to halt the drift into bloody civil war.

As for his photo, it’s a somewhat grim affair. But in addition to the expectation that statesmen would look vaguely statesmanlike back then, there was the need to sit very still while primitive film gradually absorbed your image.

It’s a long way from the modern selfie. But in some sense the journey began with Polk.

As I said, the wonders of the steam age.