Polk and McCalla


Cover of book courtesy of goodreads.com

My wife and I are slowly making our way through biographies of the American presidents in successive order. Currently, we are on the 11th president, which is Tennessee’s own James K. Polk. For this biography, we are reading from The American President’s Series, written by Nashville’s own John Seigenthaler. As a side note, I used to work at Cordell Hull building in downtown Nashville, and I could see Polk’s gravestone at the capital out my window. I stumbled across an interesting passage on Polk and William L. McCalla, who debated Alexander Campbell in 1823. Although this blurb is incomplete without the full back-story, it offers a glimpse into the personality of McCalla the debater, the anti-Catholic sentiment which continued to be prevalent in American Protestantism (and found in the Restoration Movement), and Seigenthaler’s assessment about politics and fundamentalist theology.

Polk’s hot castigations of his political enemies singe the pages of his diary, but he saved his most searing outburst for the Reverend William L. McCalla, a Presbyterian who brought a petition that Polk called “a violent and most intolerant attack on the Roman Catholics and a censure on the administration.” “Aside from its abuse of Catholics and its fanaticism,” said Polk, the memo’s main point “was that unless I appointed the Rev. McCalla a chaplain, the petitioners intended to go before the public and attack the administration upon religious grounds because of the employment of these Catholic priests. I felt great contempt for Mr. McCalla and his religion and gave him my mind freely.” “Thank God,” Polk told McCalla, that “under our Constitution there was no connection between church and state and … as President of the United States I recognized no distinction of creeds in my appointments to office.” He explained to the minister that had asked the Catholic clergy to help change the mindset of what he called the “ignorant people” of Mexico. McCalla was “a knave without vital religion or a fanatic without reason … destitute of both religion and principle.” It is interesting to ponder how the unbaptized president might have fared as a candidate a century and a half later in a political environment infused with fundamentalist theology akin to the righteousness of Pastor Wallis (Location 291 of 3598 in Kindle books edition).

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2 Responses to Polk and McCalla

  1. John Gaines says:

    Polk did attend frequently a Presbyterian church in Washington, D. C. That is especially interesting in light of his opinion of McCalla. By the way, I am also working on a “bucket list” item of reading presidential biographies and happen to be on Polk at the present as well. I am reading Robert Merry’s “A Country of Vast Designs,” which focuses largely on Polk’s presidential years.

  2. Jeremy says:

    Very cool, John. I saw the one by Merry and thought about reading it, but I couldn’t pass up a chance to read the one by Seigenthaler. Maybe I’ll get to that one, too. Thanks for the info on McCalla. I’d be interested to learn more about McCalla and the presidential interactions with religion.

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