Anniversary Post: Mathew Brady’s James Polk Photo

James Polk by Mathew BradySupposedly, on this day in 1849, James Polk became the first sitting president to have his photograph taken. It’s that one over there on the left and it was taken by the 27 year old Mathew Brady. I’ll talk about it in a moment.

Polk was a very effective president. But he was also a slave owner and what I would call pragmatically pro-slavery. He seems to have been aware that the slavery advocates were just piling up sandbags to keep out the rising waters. It was all doomed to failure, but there was Polk filling the bags and stacking them.

I have this problem. When slavery was based upon losing wars, and being a slave meant bad luck, I can see people supporting it. But slavery in America is a different matter. I don’t care how far back you go, there really was never a time when it was acceptable to be in favor of it. But Polk was pro-slavery long after any apologetics can be applied.

Of course, I don’t think much different about the titans of industry today. These are all people who are in the business of dehumanization. When you get right down to, the basis of conservatism is that there isn’t such a thing as human dignity. Any dignity that humans have is contingent. In the past, it was based on birth. Now it is based upon wealth, which just so happens to be mostly based on birth. Clearly it is different from slavery, but it is a similar system of control.

Mathew Brady

Mathew BradyThat photograph was taken by Mathew Brady — an early American photographer. And Polk was not the first president he photographed. He had photographed both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson sortly before their deaths. And boy oh boy did Jackson look bad! But James Polk was the first sitting president. Interestingly, just a few months later, Polk was dead too. If I had lived at that time, I would have been suspicious of the young Mr Brady.

Mathew Brady is very well known for his photographs of the Civil War. He spent $100,000 taking 10,000 photographs of the war. He had expected that the government would pay him for the photos. Perhaps if Lincoln had not been assassinated, they would have. But instead, he was left holding all that debt and all those pictures of an event no one was keen on remembering. Like many great artists who are celebrated long after it does them any good, he died in 1896 at the age of 73, penniless in a charity hospital.

Yay capitalism!

10 thoughts on “Anniversary Post: Mathew Brady’s James Polk Photo

  1. I’d say Polk’s slavery is less significant than his imperialism. He baited Mexico into a war to take their territory and threatened another war with Britain to take theirs. He’s responsible for the country going “from sea to shining sea,” but his methods are not something to be proud of.

    • Yes, I’m definitely not that up on Polk. I knew about Mexico, but not Britain. My greater interest is in Brady, actually. But these posts often get dashed off.

      • The slogan was “Fifty-Four Forty or Fight!” Meaning Britain should cede all its land up to the 54 degree 40 minute latitude line or we’d start a war over it. The compromise was 49 degrees, forming the modern Canadian border.

  2. I am a bit on the confused side with the “yay captialism” part-isn’t your example showing how government failed someone?

      • Nah, sometimes jokes don’t translate via written form when the person doesn’t have the right mindset.

        I took you too seriously, mea culpa or as the kids these days say “my bad.”

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