James K. Polk

James K. Polk

Overview
James Knox Polk was the 11th President of the United States
President of the United States
The President of the United States of America is the head of state and head of government of the United States. The president leads the executive branch of the federal government and is the commander-in-chief of the United States Armed Forces....

 (1845–1849). Polk was born in Mecklenburg County
Mecklenburg County, North Carolina
-Air:The county's primary commercial aviation airport is Charlotte Douglas International Airport in Charlotte.- Intercity rail :With twenty-five freight trains a day, Mecklenburg is a freight railroad transportation center, largely due to its place on the NS main line between Washington and Atlanta...

, North Carolina
North Carolina
North Carolina is a state located in the southeastern United States. The state borders South Carolina and Georgia to the south, Tennessee to the west and Virginia to the north. North Carolina contains 100 counties. Its capital is Raleigh, and its largest city is Charlotte...

. He later lived in and represented Tennessee
Tennessee
Tennessee is a U.S. state located in the Southeastern United States. It has a population of 6,346,105, making it the nation's 17th-largest state by population, and covers , making it the 36th-largest by total land area...

. A Democrat
History of the United States Democratic Party
The history of the Democratic Party of the United States is an account of the oldest political party in the United States and arguably the oldest democratic party in the world....

, Polk served as the 17th Speaker of the House of Representatives
Speaker of the United States House of Representatives
The Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, or Speaker of the House, is the presiding officer of the United States House of Representatives...

 (1835–1839) and the 12th Governor of Tennessee (1839–1841). Polk was the surprise ("dark horse
Dark horse
Dark horse is a term used to describe a little-known person or thing that emerges to prominence, especially in a competition of some sort.-Origin:The term began as horse racing parlance...

") candidate for president in 1844, defeating Henry Clay
Henry Clay
Henry Clay, Sr. , was a lawyer, politician and skilled orator who represented Kentucky separately in both the Senate and in the House of Representatives...

 of the rival Whig Party
Whig Party (United States)
The Whig Party was a political party of the United States during the era of Jacksonian democracy. Considered integral to the Second Party System and operating from the early 1830s to the mid-1850s, the party was formed in opposition to the policies of President Andrew Jackson and his Democratic...

 by promising to annex Texas
Republic of Texas
The Republic of Texas was an independent nation in North America, bordering the United States and Mexico, that existed from 1836 to 1846.Formed as a break-away republic from Mexico by the Texas Revolution, the state claimed borders that encompassed an area that included all of the present U.S...

.
Discussion
Ask a question about 'James K. Polk'
Start a new discussion about 'James K. Polk'
Answer questions from other users
Full Discussion Forum
 
Unanswered Questions
Quotations

Foreign powers do not seem to appreciate the true character of our Government.

Inaugural Address (4 March 1845)

The world has nothing to fear from military ambition in our Government.

Inaugural Address (4 March 1845)

The passion for office among members of Congress is very great, if not absolutely disreputable, and greatly embarrasses the operations of the government. They create offices by their own votes and then seek to fill them themselves.

Diary entry (22 June 1846)

Thank God, under our Constitution there was no connection between church and state.

Diary entry (14 October 1846)

There is more selfishness and less principle among members of Congress, as well as others, than I had any conception [of], before I became President of the U.S.

Diary entry (16 December 1846)

With me it is emphatically true that the presidency is "no bed of roses."

Diary entry (4 September 1847)
Encyclopedia
James Knox Polk was the 11th President of the United States
President of the United States
The President of the United States of America is the head of state and head of government of the United States. The president leads the executive branch of the federal government and is the commander-in-chief of the United States Armed Forces....

 (1845–1849). Polk was born in Mecklenburg County
Mecklenburg County, North Carolina
-Air:The county's primary commercial aviation airport is Charlotte Douglas International Airport in Charlotte.- Intercity rail :With twenty-five freight trains a day, Mecklenburg is a freight railroad transportation center, largely due to its place on the NS main line between Washington and Atlanta...

, North Carolina
North Carolina
North Carolina is a state located in the southeastern United States. The state borders South Carolina and Georgia to the south, Tennessee to the west and Virginia to the north. North Carolina contains 100 counties. Its capital is Raleigh, and its largest city is Charlotte...

. He later lived in and represented Tennessee
Tennessee
Tennessee is a U.S. state located in the Southeastern United States. It has a population of 6,346,105, making it the nation's 17th-largest state by population, and covers , making it the 36th-largest by total land area...

. A Democrat
History of the United States Democratic Party
The history of the Democratic Party of the United States is an account of the oldest political party in the United States and arguably the oldest democratic party in the world....

, Polk served as the 17th Speaker of the House of Representatives
Speaker of the United States House of Representatives
The Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, or Speaker of the House, is the presiding officer of the United States House of Representatives...

 (1835–1839) and the 12th Governor of Tennessee (1839–1841). Polk was the surprise ("dark horse
Dark horse
Dark horse is a term used to describe a little-known person or thing that emerges to prominence, especially in a competition of some sort.-Origin:The term began as horse racing parlance...

") candidate for president in 1844, defeating Henry Clay
Henry Clay
Henry Clay, Sr. , was a lawyer, politician and skilled orator who represented Kentucky separately in both the Senate and in the House of Representatives...

 of the rival Whig Party
Whig Party (United States)
The Whig Party was a political party of the United States during the era of Jacksonian democracy. Considered integral to the Second Party System and operating from the early 1830s to the mid-1850s, the party was formed in opposition to the policies of President Andrew Jackson and his Democratic...

 by promising to annex Texas
Republic of Texas
The Republic of Texas was an independent nation in North America, bordering the United States and Mexico, that existed from 1836 to 1846.Formed as a break-away republic from Mexico by the Texas Revolution, the state claimed borders that encompassed an area that included all of the present U.S...

. Polk was a leader of Jacksonian Democracy
Jacksonian democracy
Jacksonian democracy is the political movement toward greater democracy for the common man typified by American politician Andrew Jackson and his supporters. Jackson's policies followed the era of Jeffersonian democracy which dominated the previous political era. The Democratic-Republican Party of...

 during the Second Party System
Second Party System
The Second Party System is a term of periodization used by historians and political scientists to name the political party system existing in the United States from about 1828 to 1854...

.

Polk was the last strong pre–Civil War
American Civil War
The American Civil War was a civil war fought in the United States of America. In response to the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States, 11 southern slave states declared their secession from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America ; the other 25...

 president, and he is the earliest of whom there are surviving photographs taken during a term in office. He is noted for his foreign policy successes. He threatened war with Britain
United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was the formal name of the United Kingdom during the period when what is now the Republic of Ireland formed a part of it....

 over the issue of which nation owned the Oregon Country
Oregon Country
The Oregon Country was a predominantly American term referring to a disputed ownership region of the Pacific Northwest of North America. The region was occupied by British and French Canadian fur traders from before 1810, and American settlers from the mid-1830s, with its coastal areas north from...

, then backed away and split the ownership of the region with Britain. When Mexico rejected American annexation of Texas, Polk led the nation to a sweeping victory in the Mexican-American War, which gave the United States most of its present Southwest
Southwestern United States
The Southwestern United States is a region defined in different ways by different sources. Broad definitions include nearly a quarter of the United States, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas and Utah...

. He secured passage of the Walker tariff
Walker tariff
The Walker Tariff was a set of tariff rates adopted by the United States in 1846. The Walker Tariff was enacted by the Democrats, and made substantial cuts in the high rates of the "Black Tariff" of 1842, enacted by the Whigs. It was based on a report by Secretary of the Treasury Robert J. Walker...

 of 1846, which had low rates that pleased his native South, and he established a treasury system that lasted until 1913.

Polk oversaw the opening of the U.S. Naval Academy
United States Naval Academy
The United States Naval Academy is a four-year coeducational federal service academy located in Annapolis, Maryland, United States...

 and the Smithsonian Institution
Smithsonian Institution
The Smithsonian Institution is an educational and research institute and associated museum complex, administered and funded by the government of the United States and by funds from its endowment, contributions, and profits from its retail operations, concessions, licensing activities, and magazines...

, the groundbreaking for the Washington Monument
Washington Monument
The Washington Monument is an obelisk near the west end of the National Mall in Washington, D.C., built to commemorate the first U.S. president, General George Washington...

, and the issuance of the first postage stamp
Postage stamp
A postage stamp is a small piece of paper that is purchased and displayed on an item of mail as evidence of payment of postage. Typically, stamps are made from special paper, with a national designation and denomination on the face, and a gum adhesive on the reverse side...

s in the United States.

He promised to serve only one term and did not run for reelection. He died of cholera
Cholera
Cholera is an infection of the small intestine that is caused by the bacterium Vibrio cholerae. The main symptoms are profuse watery diarrhea and vomiting. Transmission occurs primarily by drinking or eating water or food that has been contaminated by the diarrhea of an infected person or the feces...

 three months after his term ended.

Scholars have ranked him favorably on the list of greatest presidents
Historical rankings of United States Presidents
In political science, historical rankings of Presidents of the United States are surveys conducted in order to construct rankings of the success of individuals who have served as President of the United States. Ranking systems are usually based on surveys of academic historians and political...

 for his ability to set an agenda and achieve all of it. Polk has been called the "least known consequential president" of the United States.

Early life


James Knox Polk, the first of ten children, was born in a farmhouse (possibly a "log" cabin) in what is now Pineville, North Carolina
Pineville, North Carolina
Pineville is a suburban town in the southernmost portion of Mecklenburg County, North Carolina situated in the Waxhaws district between Charlotte, North Carolina and Rock Hill, South Carolina....

 in Mecklenburg County
Mecklenburg County, North Carolina
-Air:The county's primary commercial aviation airport is Charlotte Douglas International Airport in Charlotte.- Intercity rail :With twenty-five freight trains a day, Mecklenburg is a freight railroad transportation center, largely due to its place on the NS main line between Washington and Atlanta...

 on November 2, 1795, just outside Charlotte
Charlotte, North Carolina
Charlotte is the largest city in the U.S. state of North Carolina and the seat of Mecklenburg County. In 2010, Charlotte's population according to the US Census Bureau was 731,424, making it the 17th largest city in the United States based on population. The Charlotte metropolitan area had a 2009...

. His father, Samuel Polk, was a slaveholder, successful farmer and surveyor of Scots-Irish descent. His mother, Jane Polk (née Knox), was a descendant of a brother of the Scottish
Scottish people
The Scottish people , or Scots, are a nation and ethnic group native to Scotland. Historically they emerged from an amalgamation of the Picts and Gaels, incorporating neighbouring Britons to the south as well as invading Germanic peoples such as the Anglo-Saxons and the Norse.In modern use,...

 religious reformer John Knox
John Knox
John Knox was a Scottish clergyman and a leader of the Protestant Reformation who brought reformation to the church in Scotland. He was educated at the University of St Andrews or possibly the University of Glasgow and was ordained to the Catholic priesthood in 1536...

. She named her firstborn after her father James Knox. Like most early Scots-Irish settlers in the North Carolina mountains, the Knox and Polk families were Presbyterian. While Jane remained a devout Presbyterian her entire life, Samuel (whose father, Ezekiel Polk, was a deist
Deism
Deism in religious philosophy is the belief that reason and observation of the natural world, without the need for organized religion, can determine that the universe is the product of an all-powerful creator. According to deists, the creator does not intervene in human affairs or suspend the...

) rejected dogmatic Presbyterianism. When the parents took James to church to be baptized, the father Samuel refused to declare his belief in Christianity, and the minister refused to baptize the child. In 1803, most of Polk's relatives moved to the Duck River
Duck River (Tennessee)
The Duck River, long, is the longest river located entirely within the U.S. state of Tennessee. Free flowing for most of its length, the Duck River is home to over 50 species of freshwater mussels and 151 species of fish, making it one of the most biologically diverse rivers in North America.The...

 area in what is now Maury County, Middle Tennessee; Polk's family waited until 1806 to follow. The family grew prosperous, with Samuel Polk turning to land speculation and becoming a county judge.

Polk was home schooled His health was problematic and in 1812 his pain became so unbearable that he was taken to Dr. Ephraim McDowell
Ephraim McDowell
Ephraim McDowell was an American physician. He was the first to successfully remove an ovarian tumor.-Biography:...

 of Danville, Kentucky
Danville, Kentucky
Danville is a city in and the county seat of Boyle County, Kentucky, United States. The population was 16,218 at the 2010 census.Danville is the principal city of the Danville Micropolitan Statistical Area, which includes all of Boyle and Lincoln counties....

, who operated to remove urinary stones. Polk was awake during the operation with nothing but brandy
Brandy
Brandy is a spirit produced by distilling wine. Brandy generally contains 35%–60% alcohol by volume and is typically taken as an after-dinner drink...

 available for anesthetic, but it was successful. The surgery may have left Polk sterile
Infertility
Infertility primarily refers to the biological inability of a person to contribute to conception. Infertility may also refer to the state of a woman who is unable to carry a pregnancy to full term...

, as he did not sire any children.
When Polk recovered, his father offered to bring him into the mercantile business, but Polk refused. In July 1813, Polk enrolled at the Zion Church
Zion Presbyterian Church (Tennessee)
Zion Presbyterian Church is a historic church in Maury County, Tennessee constructed in Greek Revival style. The original building was constructed in 1807. Although the original building has been replaced, the original site remains the home of the oldest active congegration in Maury County...

 near his home. A year later he attended an academy in Murfreesboro
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
Murfreesboro is a city in and the county seat of Rutherford County, Tennessee, United States. The population was 108,755 according to the United States Census Bureau's 2010 U.S. Census, up from 68,816 residents certified during the 2000 census. The center of population of Tennessee is located in...

, where he may have met his future wife, Sarah Childress
Sarah Childress Polk
Sarah Childress Polk was the wife of the 11th President of the United States, James Polk, and the 12th woman to serve as First Lady. Sarah was born in 1803 to Joel Childress, a prominent planter, merchant, and land speculator, and Elizabeth Whitsitt Childress—the third of their six children...

. At Murfreesboro, Polk proved a promising student. In January 1816, he transferred and was admitted into the University of North Carolina
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is a public research university located in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, United States...

 as a second-semester sophomore. The Polks had connections with the university, then a small school of about eighty students: Sam Polk was their land agent for Tennessee, and his cousin, William Polk
William Polk (colonel)
Colonel William Polk was a North Carolina, banker, educational administrator, political leader, renowned Continental officer in the War for American Independence, and survivor of the 1777/1778 encampment at Valley Forge....

, was a trustee. While there, Polk joined the Dialectic Society where he regularly took part in debates and learned the art of oratory
Oratory
Oratory is a type of public speaking.Oratory may also refer to:* Oratory , a power metal band* Oratory , a place of worship* a religious order such as** Oratory of Saint Philip Neri ** Oratory of Jesus...

. His roommate William Dunn Moseley
William Dunn Moseley
William Dunn Moseley was an American politician. A Democrat and North Carolina native, Moseley became the first Governor of the state of Florida, serving from 1845 until 1849 and leading the establishment of the state government.-Early life and education:He was born at Moseley Hall in Lenoir...

 later became the first governor of Florida. Polk graduated with honors in May 1818. The University later named its lower quad, Polk Place, on the main campus after Polk.

After graduation, Polk traveled to Nashville
Nashville, Tennessee
Nashville is the capital of the U.S. state of Tennessee and the county seat of Davidson County. It is located on the Cumberland River in Davidson County, in the north-central part of the state. The city is a center for the health care, publishing, banking and transportation industries, and is home...

 to study law under renowned Nashville trial attorney Felix Grundy
Felix Grundy
Felix Grundy was a U.S. Congressman and U.S. Senator from Tennessee who also served as the 13th Attorney General of the United States.-Biography:...

. Grundy became Polk's first mentor. On September 20, 1819, Polk, with Grundy's endorsement, was elected clerk for the Tennessee State Senate. Polk was reelected as clerk in 1821 without opposition, and would continue to serve until 1822. Polk was admitted to the bar
Bar (law)
Bar in a legal context has three possible meanings: the division of a courtroom between its working and public areas; the process of qualifying to practice law; and the legal profession.-Courtroom division:...

 in June 1820 and his first case was to defend his father against a public fighting charge, and secure his release for a one dollar fine. Polk's practice was successful as there were many cases arising from debts after the Panic of 1819
Panic of 1819
The Panic of 1819 was the first major financial crisis in the United States, and had occurred during the political calm of the Era of Good Feelings. The new nation previously had faced a depression following the war of independence in the late 1780s and led directly to the establishment of the...

.

Early political career


In 1822 Polk joined the local militia and rose to the rank of captain, and was soon promoted to colonel. Polk's oratory became popular, earning him the nickname "Napoleon of the Stump." In 1822 Polk resigned his position as clerk to run his successful campaign for the Tennessee state legislature in 1823, in which he defeated incumbent William Yancey, becoming the new representative of Maury County. In October 1823 Polk voted for Andrew Jackson
Andrew Jackson
Andrew Jackson was the seventh President of the United States . Based in frontier Tennessee, Jackson was a politician and army general who defeated the Creek Indians at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend , and the British at the Battle of New Orleans...

 to become the next United States Senator from Tennessee. Jackson won and from then on Polk was a firm supporter of Jackson.

Polk courted Sarah Childress, and they married on January 1, 1824. Polk was then 28, and Sarah was 20 years old. Throughout their marriage they had no children. They were married until his death in 1849. During Polk's political career, Sarah assisted her husband with his speeches, gave him advice on policy matters and played an active role in his campaigns. An old story told that Andrew Jackson had encouraged their romance when they began to court.

In 1824, Jackson ran for President
United States presidential election, 1824
In the United States presidential election of 1824, John Quincy Adams was elected President on February 9, 1825, after the election was decided by the House of Representatives. The previous years had seen a one-party government in the United States, as the Federalist Party had dissolved, leaving...

 but was defeated. Though Jackson had won the popular vote, neither he nor any of the other candidates (John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams was the sixth President of the United States . He served as an American diplomat, Senator, and Congressional representative. He was a member of the Federalist, Democratic-Republican, National Republican, and later Anti-Masonic and Whig parties. Adams was the son of former...

, Henry Clay
Henry Clay
Henry Clay, Sr. , was a lawyer, politician and skilled orator who represented Kentucky separately in both the Senate and in the House of Representatives...

, and William H. Crawford
William H. Crawford
William Harris Crawford was an American politician and judge during the early 19th century. He served as United States Secretary of War from 1815 to 1816 and United States Secretary of the Treasury from 1816 to 1825, and was a candidate for President of the United States in 1824.-Political...

) had won a majority of the electoral vote. The House of Representatives then had to select the verdict; Clay, who had received the least amount of electoral votes and dropped from the ballot, supported Adams. Clay's support proved to be the deciding factor in the House and Adams was elected President. Adams then offered Clay a position in the Cabinet as Secretary of State
United States Secretary of State
The United States Secretary of State is the head of the United States Department of State, concerned with foreign affairs. The Secretary is a member of the Cabinet and the highest-ranking cabinet secretary both in line of succession and order of precedence...

.
In 1825, Polk ran for the United States House of Representatives
United States House of Representatives
The United States House of Representatives is one of the two Houses of the United States Congress, the bicameral legislature which also includes the Senate.The composition and powers of the House are established in Article One of the Constitution...

 for the Tennessee's 6th congressional district
Tennessee's 6th congressional district
The 6th Congressional District of Tennessee is a congressional district in Middle Tennessee. It currently includes all of Bedford, Cannon, Clay, DeKalb, Jackson, Macon, Marshall, Overton, Putnam, Robertson, Rutherford, Smith, Sumner, and Trousdale Counties, as well as a portion of Wilson County...

. Polk vigorously campaigned in the district. Polk was so active that Sarah began to worry about his health. During the campaign, Polk's opponents said that at the age of 29 Polk was too young for a spot in the House, but he won the election and took his seat in Congress. When Polk arrived in Washington D.C he roomed in a boarding house with some other Tennessee representatives, including Benjamin Burch. Polk made his first major speech on March 13, 1826, in which he said that the Electoral College should be abolished and that the President should be elected by the popular vote. After Congress went into recess in the summer of 1826, Polk returned to Tennessee to see Sarah, and when Congress met again in the autumn, Polk returned to Washington with Sarah. In 1827 Polk was reelected to Congress. In 1828, Jackson ran for President again and during the campaign Polk and Jackson corresponded, with Polk giving Jackson advice on his campaign. With Jackson's victory in the election Polk began to support the administration's position in Congress. During this time, Polk continued to be reelected in the House. In August 1833, after being elected to this fifth term, Polk became the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee.

Speaker of the House


In June 1834, Speaker of the House Andrew Stevenson
Andrew Stevenson
Andrew Stevenson was a Democratic politician in the United States. Educated at the College of William and Mary, he married three times. His second wife, Sarah Coles, was a cousin of Dolley Madison and sister of Edward Coles, a governor of Illinois...

 resigned, leaving the spot for speaker open. Polk ran against fellow Tennessean John Bell
John Bell (Tennessee politician)
John Bell was a U.S. politician, attorney, and plantation owner. A wealthy slaveholder from Tennessee, Bell served in the United States Congress in both the House of Representatives and Senate. He began his career as a Democrat, he eventually fell out with Andrew Jackson and became a Whig...

 for Speaker, and, after ten ballots, Bell won. However, in 1835, Polk ran against Bell for Speaker again and won.

Polk worked for Jackson's policies as speaker, and Van Buren's when he succeeded Jackson in 1837; he appointed committees with Democratic chairs and majorities, including the New York radical C. C. Cambreleng as Chair of the Ways and Means Committee, although he maintained the facade of traditional bipartisanship. The two major issues during Polk's speakership were slavery and the economy, after the Panic of 1837
Panic of 1837
The Panic of 1837 was a financial crisis or market correction in the United States built on a speculative fever. The end of the Second Bank of the United States had produced a period of runaway inflation, but on May 10, 1837 in New York City, every bank began to accept payment only in specie ,...

. Van Buren and Polk faced pressure to rescind the Specie Circular
Specie Circular
The Specie Circular was an executive order issued by U.S. President Andrew Jackson in 1836 and carried out by President Martin Van Buren. It required payment for government land to be in gold and silver.-History:...

, an act that had been signed by Jackson to boost the economy. The act required that payment for government lands be in gold and silver. However, with support from Polk and his cabinet, Van Buren chose to stick with the Specie Circular.

Polk attempted to make a more orderly house. He never challenged anyone to a duel no matter how much they insulted his honor as was customary then. Polk also issued the gag rule
Gag rule
A gag rule is a rule that limits or forbids the raising, consideration or discussion of a particular topic by members of a legislative or decision-making body.-Origin and pros and cons:...

 on petitions from abolitionists.

Polk remains the only president who served as Speaker of the House.

Governor of Tennessee


In 1838, the political situation in Tennessee—where, in 1835, Democrats had lost the governorship for the first time in their party's history—persuaded Polk to return to help the party at home. Leaving Congress in 1839, Polk became a candidate in the Tennessee gubernatorial election, defeating the incumbent Whig
Whig Party (United States)
The Whig Party was a political party of the United States during the era of Jacksonian democracy. Considered integral to the Second Party System and operating from the early 1830s to the mid-1850s, the party was formed in opposition to the policies of President Andrew Jackson and his Democratic...

, Newton Cannon
Newton Cannon
Newton Cannon was an American politician who was a member of the Tennessee State Senate from 1811 to 1812 and 1829 to 1830, the U.S. House of Representatives from 1814 to 1817 and 1819 to 1823, and Governor of the U.S...

 by about 2,500 votes, out of about 105,000.

Polk's three major programs during his governorship; regulating state banks, implementing state internal improvements, and improving education all did not get approval by the legislature. In the presidential election of 1840, Van Buren was overwhelmingly defeated by a popular Whig, William Henry Harrison
William Henry Harrison
William Henry Harrison was the ninth President of the United States , an American military officer and politician, and the first president to die in office. He was 68 years, 23 days old when elected, the oldest president elected until Ronald Reagan in 1980, and last President to be born before the...

. Polk received one electoral vote from Tennessee for Vice President
Vice President of the United States
The Vice President of the United States is the holder of a public office created by the United States Constitution. The Vice President, together with the President of the United States, is indirectly elected by the people, through the Electoral College, to a four-year term...

 in the election. Polk lost his own reelection to James C. Jones
James C. Jones
James Chamberlain Jones was the Governor of Tennessee from 1841 to 1845, and a United States Senator from that state from 1851 to 1857...

, in 1841, by 3,243 votes. He challenged Jones in 1843, campaigning across the state and publicly debating against Jones, but was defeated again, this time by a slightly greater margin of 3,833 votes.

Election of 1844




Polk initially hoped to be nominated for vice-president at the Democratic convention
Democratic National Convention
The Democratic National Convention is a series of presidential nominating conventions held every four years since 1832 by the United States Democratic Party. They have been administered by the Democratic National Committee since the 1852 national convention...

, which began on May 27, 1844. The leading contender for the presidential nomination was former President Martin Van Buren, who wanted to stop the expansion of slavery. Other candidates included James Buchanan
James Buchanan
James Buchanan, Jr. was the 15th President of the United States . He is the only president from Pennsylvania, the only president who remained a lifelong bachelor and the last to be born in the 18th century....

, General Lewis Cass
Lewis Cass
Lewis Cass was an American military officer and politician. During his long political career, Cass served as a governor of the Michigan Territory, an American ambassador, a U.S. Senator representing Michigan, and co-founder as well as first Masonic Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Michigan...

, Cave Johnson
Cave Johnson
Cave Johnson was for fourteen years a Democratic U.S. Congressman from Tennessee. He was also the United States Postmaster General under James K. Polk from 1845–1849...

, John C. Calhoun
John C. Calhoun
John Caldwell Calhoun was a leading politician and political theorist from South Carolina during the first half of the 19th century. Calhoun eloquently spoke out on every issue of his day, but often changed positions. Calhoun began his political career as a nationalist, modernizer, and proponent...

, and Levi Woodbury
Levi Woodbury
Levi Woodbury was an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, a U.S. Senator, Governor of New Hampshire and cabinet member in three administrations. He was the first Justice to have attended law school....

. The primary point of political contention involved the Republic of Texas
Republic of Texas
The Republic of Texas was an independent nation in North America, bordering the United States and Mexico, that existed from 1836 to 1846.Formed as a break-away republic from Mexico by the Texas Revolution, the state claimed borders that encompassed an area that included all of the present U.S...

, which, after declaring independence from Mexico
Mexico
The United Mexican States , commonly known as Mexico , is a federal constitutional republic in North America. It is bordered on the north by the United States; on the south and west by the Pacific Ocean; on the southeast by Guatemala, Belize, and the Caribbean Sea; and on the east by the Gulf of...

 in 1836, had asked to join the United States. Van Buren opposed the annexation but in doing so lost the support of many Democrats, including former President Andrew Jackson, who still had much influence. Van Buren won a simple majority on the convention's first ballot but did not attain the two-thirds supermajority required for nomination. When it became clear after another six ballots that Van Buren would not win the required majority, Polk emerged as a "dark horse
Dark horse
Dark horse is a term used to describe a little-known person or thing that emerges to prominence, especially in a competition of some sort.-Origin:The term began as horse racing parlance...

" candidate. After an indecisive eighth ballot, the convention unanimously nominated Polk.

Before the convention, Jackson told Polk that he was his favorite for the nomination of the Democratic Party. Even with this support, Polk instructed his managers at the convention to support Van Buren if he could win the nomination. This assured that if a deadlocked convention occurred, initial supporters of Van Buren would pick Polk as a compromise candidate for the Democrats. In the end, this is exactly what happened as a result for Polk's support of westward expansion.

When advised of his nomination, Polk replied: "It has been well observed that the office of President of the United States should neither be sought nor declined. I have never sought it, nor should I feel at liberty to decline it, if conferred upon me by the voluntary suffrage
Suffrage
Suffrage, political franchise, or simply the franchise, distinct from mere voting rights, is the civil right to vote gained through the democratic process...

s of my fellow citizens." Because the Democratic Party was splintered into bitter factions, Polk promised to serve only one term if elected, hoping that his disappointed rival Democrats would unite behind him with the knowledge that another candidate would be chosen in four years.


Polk's Whig opponent in the 1844 presidential election was Henry Clay
Henry Clay
Henry Clay, Sr. , was a lawyer, politician and skilled orator who represented Kentucky separately in both the Senate and in the House of Representatives...

 of Kentucky. (Incumbent Whig President John Tyler
John Tyler
John Tyler was the tenth President of the United States . A native of Virginia, Tyler served as a state legislator, governor, U.S. representative, and U.S. senator before being elected Vice President . He was the first to succeed to the office of President following the death of a predecessor...

—a former Democrat—had become estranged from the Whigs and was not nominated for a second term.) The annexation of Texas
Texas Annexation
In 1845, United States of America annexed the Republic of Texas and admitted it to the Union as the 28th state. The U.S. thus inherited Texas's border dispute with Mexico; this quickly led to the Mexican-American War, during which the U.S. captured additional territory , extending the nation's...

, which was at the forefront during the Democratic Convention, again dominated the campaign. Polk was a strong proponent of immediate annexation, while Clay seemed more equivocal and vacillating.

Another campaign issue, also related to westward expansion, involved the Oregon Country
Oregon Country
The Oregon Country was a predominantly American term referring to a disputed ownership region of the Pacific Northwest of North America. The region was occupied by British and French Canadian fur traders from before 1810, and American settlers from the mid-1830s, with its coastal areas north from...

, then under the joint occupation of the United States and the Uited Kingdom. The Democrats had championed the cause of expansion, informally linking the controversial Texas annexation issue with a claim to the entire Oregon Country, thus appealing to both Northern and Southern expansionists. (The slogan "Fifty-four Forty or Fight," often incorrectly attributed to the 1844 election, did not appear until later; see Oregon boundary dispute
Oregon boundary dispute
The Oregon boundary dispute, or the Oregon Question, arose as a result of competing British and American claims to the Pacific Northwest of North America in the first half of the 19th century. Both the United Kingdom and the United States had territorial and commercial aspirations in the region...

.) Polk's consistent support for westward expansion—what Democrats would later call "Manifest Destiny
Manifest Destiny
Manifest Destiny was the 19th century American belief that the United States was destined to expand across the continent. It was used by Democrat-Republicans in the 1840s to justify the war with Mexico; the concept was denounced by Whigs, and fell into disuse after the mid-19th century.Advocates of...

"—likely played an important role in his victory, as opponent Henry Clay hedged his position.

In the election, Polk and his running mate, George M. Dallas
George M. Dallas
George Mifflin Dallas was a U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania and the 11th Vice President of the United States , serving under James K. Polk.-Family and early life:...

, won in the South
Southern United States
The Southern United States—commonly referred to as the American South, Dixie, or simply the South—constitutes a large distinctive area in the southeastern and south-central United States...

 and West, while Clay drew support in the Northeast
Northeastern United States
The Northeastern United States is a region of the United States as defined by the United States Census Bureau.-Composition:The region comprises nine states: the New England states of Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont; and the Mid-Atlantic states of New...

. Polk lost his home state, Tennessee, but won New York, where Clay lost votes to the antislavery Liberty Party candidate James G. Birney
James G. Birney
James Gillespie Birney was an abolitionist, politician and jurist born in Danville, Kentucky. From 1816 to 1818, he served in the Kentucky House of Representatives...

. Also contributing to Polk's victory was the support of new immigrant voters, who opposed the Whigs' policies. Polk won the popular vote by a margin of about 39,000 out of 2.6 million, and took the Electoral College with 170 votes to Clay's 105. Polk won 15 states, while Clay won 11.

Polk is the only Speaker of the House of Representatives to be elected President of the United States.

Presidency (1845–1849)



When he took office on March 4, 1845, Polk, at 49, became the youngest man at the time to assume the presidency. According to a story told decades later by George Bancroft
George Bancroft
George Bancroft was an American historian and statesman who was prominent in promoting secondary education both in his home state and at the national level. During his tenure as U.S. Secretary of the Navy, he established the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1845...

, Polk set four clearly defined goals for his administration:
  • Reestablish the Independent Treasury System.
  • Reduce tariffs.
  • Acquire some or all of Oregon Country
    Oregon boundary dispute
    The Oregon boundary dispute, or the Oregon Question, arose as a result of competing British and American claims to the Pacific Northwest of North America in the first half of the 19th century. Both the United Kingdom and the United States had territorial and commercial aspirations in the region...

    .
  • Acquire California
    California
    California is a state located on the West Coast of the United States. It is by far the most populous U.S. state, and the third-largest by land area...

     and New Mexico
    New Mexico
    New Mexico is a state located in the southwest and western regions of the United States. New Mexico is also usually considered one of the Mountain States. With a population density of 16 per square mile, New Mexico is the sixth-most sparsely inhabited U.S...

     from Mexico
    Mexico
    The United Mexican States , commonly known as Mexico , is a federal constitutional republic in North America. It is bordered on the north by the United States; on the south and west by the Pacific Ocean; on the southeast by Guatemala, Belize, and the Caribbean Sea; and on the east by the Gulf of...

    .


Pledged to serve only one term, he accomplished all these objectives in just four years. By linking acquisition of new lands in Oregon (with no slavery) and Texas (with slavery), he hoped to satisfy both North and South.

During his presidency James K. Polk was known as "Young Hickory", an allusion to his mentor Andrew Jackson
Andrew Jackson
Andrew Jackson was the seventh President of the United States . Based in frontier Tennessee, Jackson was a politician and army general who defeated the Creek Indians at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend , and the British at the Battle of New Orleans...

, and "Napoleon of the Stump
Stump speech (politics)
A political stump speech is a standard speech used by a politician running for office. The term derives from the custom in 19th century America for political candidates campaigning from town to town to stand upon a sawed off tree stump to deliver a standard speech...

" for his speaking skills.

Fiscal policy


In 1846, Congress approved the Walker Tariff
Walker tariff
The Walker Tariff was a set of tariff rates adopted by the United States in 1846. The Walker Tariff was enacted by the Democrats, and made substantial cuts in the high rates of the "Black Tariff" of 1842, enacted by the Whigs. It was based on a report by Secretary of the Treasury Robert J. Walker...

 (named after Robert J. Walker
Robert J. Walker
Robert John Walker was an American economist and statesman.- Early life and education :Born in Northumberland, Pennsylvania, the son of a judge. He lived in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania from 1806 to 1814, where his father was presiding judge of the judicial district. Walker was educated at the...

, the Secretary of the Treasury
United States Secretary of the Treasury
The Secretary of the Treasury of the United States is the head of the United States Department of the Treasury, which is concerned with financial and monetary matters, and, until 2003, also with some issues of national security and defense. This position in the Federal Government of the United...

), which represented a substantial reduction of the high Whig-backed Tariff of 1842
Tariff of 1842
The Tariff of 1842, or Black Tariff as it became known, was a protectionist tariff schedule adopted in the United States to reverse the effects of the Compromise Tariff of 1833...

. The new law abandoned ad valorem
Ad valorem tax
An ad valorem tax is a tax based on the value of real estate or personal property. It is more common than a specific duty, a tax based on the quantity of an item, such as cents per kilogram, regardless of price....

 tariffs and set rates independent of the monetary value of the product. Polk's actions were popular in the South and West; however, they were despised by many protectionists
Protectionism
Protectionism is the economic policy of restraining trade between states through methods such as tariffs on imported goods, restrictive quotas, and a variety of other government regulations designed to allow "fair competition" between imports and goods and services produced domestically.This...

 in Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is a U.S. state that is located in the Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic regions of the United States. The state borders Delaware and Maryland to the south, West Virginia to the southwest, Ohio to the west, New York and Ontario, Canada, to the north, and New Jersey to...

.

In 1846, Polk approved a law restoring the Independent Treasury System, under which government funds were held in the Treasury and not in banks or other financial institutions. This established independent treasury deposit offices, separate from private or state banks, to receive all government funds.

Rivers and Harbors Veto


Congress passed the Rivers and Harbors Bill
Rivers and Harbors Bill
The Rivers and Harbors Bill was a bill passed by Congress in 1846 to provide $500,000 to improve rivers and harbors. When the Senate passed the Rivers and Harbors Bill 34 to 16 on July 24, 1846, opponents lobbied for a presidential veto. It was vetoed by President James K. Polk on August 3...

 in 1846 to provide $500,000 to improve rivers and harbors, but Polk vetoed the bill. It would have provided for federally funded internal improvements on small harbors. Polk believed that this was unconstitutional because the bill unfairly favored particular areas, including ports which had no foreign trade. Polk believed that these problems were local and not national. Polk feared that passing the Rivers and Harbors Bill would encourage legislators to compete for favors for their home districts – a type of corruption
Political corruption
Political corruption is the use of legislated powers by government officials for illegitimate private gain. Misuse of government power for other purposes, such as repression of political opponents and general police brutality, is not considered political corruption. Neither are illegal acts by...

 that would spell doom to the virtue of the republic
Republicanism in the United States
Republicanism is the political value system that has been a major part of American civic thought since the American Revolution. It stresses liberty and inalienable rights as central values, makes the people as a whole sovereign, supports activist government to promote the common good, rejects...

. In this regard he followed his hero Andrew Jackson
Andrew Jackson
Andrew Jackson was the seventh President of the United States . Based in frontier Tennessee, Jackson was a politician and army general who defeated the Creek Indians at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend , and the British at the Battle of New Orleans...

, who had vetoed the Maysville Road Bill
Maysville Road veto
The Maysville Road veto occurred on May 27, 1830, when President Andrew Jackson vetoed a bill which would allow the Federal government to purchase stock in the Maysville, Washington, Paris, and Lexington Turnpike Road Company, which had been organized to construct a road linking Lexington and the...

 in 1830 on similar grounds.

Slavery


During his presidency, many abolitionists harshly criticized him as an instrument of the "Slave Power
Slave power
The Slave Power was a term used in the Northern United States to characterize the political power of the slaveholding class of the South....

", and claimed that spreading slavery was the reason he supported annexing Texas
Texas Annexation
In 1845, United States of America annexed the Republic of Texas and admitted it to the Union as the 28th state. The U.S. thus inherited Texas's border dispute with Mexico; this quickly led to the Mexican-American War, during which the U.S. captured additional territory , extending the nation's...

 and later war with Mexico. Polk stated in his diary that he believed slavery could not exist in the territories won from Mexico, but refused to endorse the Wilmot Proviso
Wilmot Proviso
The Wilmot Proviso, one of the major events leading to the Civil War, would have banned slavery in any territory to be acquired from Mexico in the Mexican War or in the future, including the area later known as the Mexican Cession, but which some proponents construed to also include the disputed...

 that would forbid it there. Polk argued instead for extending the Missouri Compromise
Missouri Compromise
The Missouri Compromise was an agreement passed in 1820 between the pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions in the United States Congress, involving primarily the regulation of slavery in the western territories. It prohibited slavery in the former Louisiana Territory north of the parallel 36°30'...

 line to the Pacific Ocean, which would prohibit the expansion of slavery above 36° 30' west of Missouri
Missouri
Missouri is a US state located in the Midwestern United States, bordered by Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska. With a 2010 population of 5,988,927, Missouri is the 18th most populous state in the nation and the fifth most populous in the Midwest. It...

, but allow it below that line if approved by eligible voters in the territory. William Dusinberre has argued that Polk's diary, which he kept during his presidency, was written for later publication, and does not represent Polk's policy.

Polk was a slaveholder for his entire life. His father, Samuel Polk, had left Polk more than 8,000 acres (32 km²) of land, and divided about 53 slaves to his widow and children after he died. James inherited twenty of his father's slaves, either directly or from deceased brothers. In 1831, he became an absentee cotton planter, sending slaves to clear plantation
Plantations in the American South
Plantations were an important aspect of the history of the American South, particularly the antebellum .-Planter :The owner of a plantation was called a planter...

 land that his father had left him near Somerville, Tennessee
Somerville, Tennessee
Somerville is a town in Fayette County, Tennessee, United States. It is part of the Memphis metropolitan area. The population was 3,094 at the 2010 census. It is the county seat of Fayette County.-History:...

. Four years later Polk sold his Somerville plantation and, together with his brother-in-law, bought 920 acres (3.7 km²) of land, a cotton plantation near Coffeeville, Mississippi
Coffeeville, Mississippi
Coffeeville is a town in Yalobusha County, Mississippi, United States. The population was 930 at the 2000 census. It is named after John Coffee , a planter and military leader.-Geography:Coffeeville is located at ....

. He ran this plantation for the rest of his life, eventually taking it over completely from his brother-in-law. Polk rarely sold slaves, although once he became President and could better afford it, he bought more. Polk's will stipulated that their slaves were to be freed after his wife Sarah had died. However, the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation
Emancipation Proclamation
The Emancipation Proclamation is an executive order issued by United States President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863, during the American Civil War using his war powers. It proclaimed the freedom of 3.1 million of the nation's 4 million slaves, and immediately freed 50,000 of them, with nearly...

 and the 1865 Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution
Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution
The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution officially abolished and continues to prohibit slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime. It was passed by the Senate on April 8, 1864, passed by the House on January 31, 1865, and adopted on December 6, 1865. On...

 freed all remaining slaves in rebel states long before the death of his wife in 1891.

Foreign policy


Polk strongly supported expansion. Democrats believed that opening up more land for yeoman farmers was critical for the success of republican virtue. (See Manifest Destiny
Manifest Destiny
Manifest Destiny was the 19th century American belief that the United States was destined to expand across the continent. It was used by Democrat-Republicans in the 1840s to justify the war with Mexico; the concept was denounced by Whigs, and fell into disuse after the mid-19th century.Advocates of...

.) Like most Southerners, he supported the annexation of Texas. To balance the interests of North and South, he wanted to acquire the Oregon Country (present-day Oregon
Oregon
Oregon is a state in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States. It is located on the Pacific coast, with Washington to the north, California to the south, Nevada on the southeast and Idaho to the east. The Columbia and Snake rivers delineate much of Oregon's northern and eastern...

, Washington, Idaho
Idaho
Idaho is a state in the Rocky Mountain area of the United States. The state's largest city and capital is Boise. Residents are called "Idahoans". Idaho was admitted to the Union on July 3, 1890, as the 43rd state....

, and British Columbia
British Columbia
British Columbia is the westernmost of Canada's provinces and is known for its natural beauty, as reflected in its Latin motto, Splendor sine occasu . Its name was chosen by Queen Victoria in 1858...

) as well. He sought to purchase California, which Mexico had neglected.

Oregon territory



Polk put heavy pressure on Britain to resolve the Oregon boundary dispute
Oregon boundary dispute
The Oregon boundary dispute, or the Oregon Question, arose as a result of competing British and American claims to the Pacific Northwest of North America in the first half of the 19th century. Both the United Kingdom and the United States had territorial and commercial aspirations in the region...

. Since 1818, the territory had been under the joint occupation and control of the United Kingdom and the United States. Previous U.S. administrations had offered to divide the region along the 49th parallel
49th parallel north
The 49th parallel north is a circle of latitude that is 49 degrees north of the Earth's equatorial plane. It crosses Europe, Asia, the Pacific Ocean, North America, and the Atlantic Ocean....

, which was not acceptable to Britain, as they had commercial interests along the Columbia River
Columbia River
The Columbia River is the largest river in the Pacific Northwest region of North America. The river rises in the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia, Canada, flows northwest and then south into the U.S. state of Washington, then turns west to form most of the border between Washington and the state...

. Although the Democratic platform asserted a claim to the entire region, Polk was willing to compromise. When the British again refused to accept the 49th parallel boundary proposal, Polk broke off negotiations and returned to the Democratic platform "All Oregon" demand (which called for all of Oregon up to the 54-40 line that marked the southern boundary of Russian Alaska). "54-40 or fight!" now became a popular rallying cry among Democrats

Polk wanted territory, not war, so he compromised with the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Aberdeen
George Hamilton-Gordon, 4th Earl of Aberdeen
George Hamilton-Gordon, 4th Earl of Aberdeen KG, KT, FRS, PC , styled Lord Haddo from 1791 to 1801, was a Scottish politician, successively a Tory, Conservative and Peelite, who served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1852 until 1855.-Early life:Born in Edinburgh on 28 January 1784, he...

. The Oregon Treaty
Oregon Treaty
The Oregon Treaty is a treaty between the United Kingdom and the United States that was signed on June 15, 1846, in Washington, D.C. The treaty brought an end to the Oregon boundary dispute by settling competing American and British claims to the Oregon Country, which had been jointly occupied by...

 of 1846 divided the Oregon Country along the 49th parallel, the original American proposal. Although there were many who still clamored for the entire territory, the treaty was approved by the Senate. By settling for the 49th parallel, Polk angered many midwestern Democrats. Many of these Democrats believed that Polk had always wanted the boundary at the 49th, and that he had fooled them into believing he wanted it at the 54th parallel
54th parallel north
The 54th parallel north is a circle of latitude that is 54 degrees north of the Earth's equatorial plane. It crosses Europe, Asia, the Pacific Ocean, North America, and the Atlantic Ocean....

. The portion of Oregon territory acquired by the United States later formed the states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, and parts of the states of Montana
Montana
Montana is a state in the Western United States. The western third of Montana contains numerous mountain ranges. Smaller, "island ranges" are found in the central third of the state, for a total of 77 named ranges of the Rocky Mountains. This geographical fact is reflected in the state's name,...

 and Wyoming
Wyoming
Wyoming is a state in the mountain region of the Western United States. The western two thirds of the state is covered mostly with the mountain ranges and rangelands in the foothills of the Eastern Rocky Mountains, while the eastern third of the state is high elevation prairie known as the High...

.

Texas



President Tyler despised Polk as a person and politician. Upon hearing of Polk's election to office, Tyler urged Congress to pass a joint resolution
Joint resolution
In the United States Congress, a joint resolution is a legislative measure that requires approval by the Senate and the House and is presented to the President for his/her approval or disapproval, in exactly the same case as a bill....

 admitting Texas to the Union
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

; Congress complied on February 28, 1845. Texas promptly accepted the offer and officially became a state on December 29, 1845. The annexation angered Mexico
Mexico
The United Mexican States , commonly known as Mexico , is a federal constitutional republic in North America. It is bordered on the north by the United States; on the south and west by the Pacific Ocean; on the southeast by Guatemala, Belize, and the Caribbean Sea; and on the east by the Gulf of...

, which had lost Texas in 1836
Texas Revolution
The Texas Revolution or Texas War of Independence was an armed conflict between Mexico and settlers in the Texas portion of the Mexican state Coahuila y Tejas. The war lasted from October 2, 1835 to April 21, 1836...

. Mexican politicians had repeatedly warned that annexation would lead to war. Nonetheless, just days after the resolution passed Congress, Polk declared in his inaugural address that only Texas and the United States would decide whether to annex.

Mexican-American War


After the Texas annexation, Polk turned his attention to California, hoping to acquire the territory from Mexico before any European nation did so. The main interest was San Francisco Bay
San Francisco Bay
San Francisco Bay is a shallow, productive estuary through which water draining from approximately forty percent of California, flowing in the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers from the Sierra Nevada mountains, enters the Pacific Ocean...

 as an access point for trade with Asia. In 1845, he sent diplomat John Slidell
John Slidell
John Slidell was an American politician, lawyer and businessman. A native of New York, Slidell moved to Louisiana as a young man and became a staunch defender of southern rights as a U.S. Representative and Senator...

 to Mexico to purchase California and New Mexico
New Mexico
New Mexico is a state located in the southwest and western regions of the United States. New Mexico is also usually considered one of the Mountain States. With a population density of 16 per square mile, New Mexico is the sixth-most sparsely inhabited U.S...

 for $24–30 million. Slidell's arrival caused political turmoil in Mexico after word leaked out that he was there to purchase additional territory and not to offer compensation for the loss of Texas. The Mexicans refused to receive Slidell, citing a technical problem with his credentials. In January 1846, to increase pressure on Mexico to negotiate, Polk sent troops under General Zachary Taylor
Zachary Taylor
Zachary Taylor was the 12th President of the United States and an American military leader. Initially uninterested in politics, Taylor nonetheless ran as a Whig in the 1848 presidential election, defeating Lewis Cass...

 into the area between the Nueces River
Nueces River
The Nueces River is a river in the U.S. state of Texas, approximately long. It drains a region in central and southern Texas southeastward into the Gulf of Mexico. It is the southernmost major river in Texas northeast of the Rio Grande...

 and the Rio Grande
Rio Grande
The Rio Grande is a river that flows from southwestern Colorado in the United States to the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way it forms part of the Mexico – United States border. Its length varies as its course changes...

—territory that was claimed by both the U.S. and Mexico.

Slidell returned to Washington in May 1846, having been rebuffed by the Mexican government. Polk regarded this treatment of his diplomat as an insult and an "ample cause of war", and he prepared to ask Congress for a declaration of war. Meanwhile Taylor crossed the Rio Grande River and briefly occupied Matamoros, Tamaulipas
Matamoros, Tamaulipas
Matamoros, officially known as Heroica Matamoros, is a city in the northeastern part of Tamaulipas, in the country of Mexico. It is located on the southern bank of the Rio Grande, directly across the border from Brownsville, Texas, in the United States. Matamoros is the second largest and second...

. Taylor continued to blockade ships from entering the port of Matamoros. Mere days before Polk intended to make his request to Congress, he received word that Mexican forces had crossed the Rio Grande area and killed eleven American soldiers. Polk then made this the casus belli
Casus belli
is a Latin expression meaning the justification for acts of war. means "incident", "rupture" or indeed "case", while means bellic...

, and in a message to Congress on May 11, 1846, he stated that Mexico had "invaded our territory and shed American blood upon the American soil."

Some Whigs, such as Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States, serving from March 1861 until his assassination in April 1865. He successfully led his country through a great constitutional, military and moral crisis – the American Civil War – preserving the Union, while ending slavery, and...

, challenged Polk's version of events, but Congress overwhelmingly approved the declaration of war. Many Whigs feared that opposition would cost them politically by casting themselves as unpatriotic for not supporting the war effort.

In the House, antislavery Whigs led by John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams was the sixth President of the United States . He served as an American diplomat, Senator, and Congressional representative. He was a member of the Federalist, Democratic-Republican, National Republican, and later Anti-Masonic and Whig parties. Adams was the son of former...

 voted against the war; among Democrats, Senator John C. Calhoun
John C. Calhoun
John Caldwell Calhoun was a leading politician and political theorist from South Carolina during the first half of the 19th century. Calhoun eloquently spoke out on every issue of his day, but often changed positions. Calhoun began his political career as a nationalist, modernizer, and proponent...

 was the most notable opponent of the declaration.


Military action


Polk selected the top generals and set the military strategy of the war. By the summer of 1846, American forces under General Stephen W. Kearny
Stephen W. Kearny
Stephen Watts Kearny surname also appears as Kearney in some historic sources; August 30, 1794 October 31, 1848), was one of the foremost antebellum frontier officers of the United States Army. He is remembered for his significant contributions in the Mexican-American War, especially the conquest...

 had captured New Mexico. Meanwhile, Army captain John C. Frémont
John C. Frémont
John Charles Frémont , was an American military officer, explorer, and the first candidate of the anti-slavery Republican Party for the office of President of the United States. During the 1840s, that era's penny press accorded Frémont the sobriquet The Pathfinder...

 led settlers in northern California to overthrow the Mexican garrison in Sonoma (in the Bear Flag Revolt
California Republic
The California Republic, also called the Bear Flag Republic, is the name used for a period of revolt against Mexico initially proclaimed by a handful of American settlers in Mexican California on June 14, 1846, in Sonoma. This was shortly before news of the Mexican–American War had reached the area...

). General Zachary Taylor, at the same time, was having success on the Rio Grande, although Polk did not reinforce his troops there. The United States also negotiated a secret arrangement with Antonio López de Santa Anna
Antonio López de Santa Anna
Antonio de Padua María Severino López de Santa Anna y Pérez de Lebrón , often known as Santa Anna or López de Santa Anna, known as "the Napoleon of the West," was a Mexican political leader, general, and president who greatly influenced early Mexican and Spanish politics and government...

, the Mexican general and dictator who had been overthrown in 1844. Santa Anna agreed that, if given safe passage into Mexico, he would attempt to persuade those in power to sell California and New Mexico to the United States. Once he reached Mexico, however, he reneged on his agreement, declared himself President, and tried to drive the American invaders back. Santa Anna's efforts, however, were in vain, as Generals Taylor and Winfield Scott
Winfield Scott
Winfield Scott was a United States Army general, and unsuccessful presidential candidate of the Whig Party in 1852....

 destroyed all resistance. Scott captured Mexico City in September 1847, and Taylor won a series of victories in northern Mexico. Even after these battles, Mexico did not surrender until 1848, when it agreed to peace terms set out by Polk.

Peace: the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo


Polk sent diplomat Nicholas Trist
Nicholas Trist
Nicholas Philip Trist was an American diplomat.Trist was born in Charlottesville, Virginia. He attended West Point and studied law under Thomas Jefferson, whose granddaughter he married. He was also private secretary to Andrew Jackson.Through political connections, Trist was appointed U.S...

 to negotiate with the Mexicans. Lack of progress prompted the President to order Trist to return to the United States, but the diplomat ignored the instructions and stayed in Mexico to continue bargaining. Trist successfully negotiated the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo
Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo
The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo is the peace treaty, largely dictated by the United States to the interim government of a militarily occupied Mexico City, that ended the Mexican-American War on February 2, 1848...

 in 1848, which Polk agreed to ratify, ignoring calls from Democrats who demanded that all Mexico be annexed. The treaty added 1.2 million square miles (3.1 million square kilometers) of territory to the United States; Mexico's size was halved, while that of the United States increased by a third. California
California
California is a state located on the West Coast of the United States. It is by far the most populous U.S. state, and the third-largest by land area...

, Nevada
Nevada
Nevada is a state in the western, mountain west, and southwestern regions of the United States. With an area of and a population of about 2.7 million, it is the 7th-largest and 35th-most populous state. Over two-thirds of Nevada's people live in the Las Vegas metropolitan area, which contains its...

, Utah
Utah
Utah is a state in the Western United States. It was the 45th state to join the Union, on January 4, 1896. Approximately 80% of Utah's 2,763,885 people live along the Wasatch Front, centering on Salt Lake City. This leaves vast expanses of the state nearly uninhabited, making the population the...

, most of Arizona
Arizona
Arizona ; is a state located in the southwestern region of the United States. It is also part of the western United States and the mountain west. The capital and largest city is Phoenix...

, and parts of New Mexico
New Mexico
New Mexico is a state located in the southwest and western regions of the United States. New Mexico is also usually considered one of the Mountain States. With a population density of 16 per square mile, New Mexico is the sixth-most sparsely inhabited U.S...

, Colorado
Colorado
Colorado is a U.S. state that encompasses much of the Rocky Mountains as well as the northeastern portion of the Colorado Plateau and the western edge of the Great Plains...

 and Wyoming
Wyoming
Wyoming is a state in the mountain region of the Western United States. The western two thirds of the state is covered mostly with the mountain ranges and rangelands in the foothills of the Eastern Rocky Mountains, while the eastern third of the state is high elevation prairie known as the High...

 were all included in the Mexican Cession. The treaty also recognized the annexation of Texas and acknowledged American control over the disputed territory between the Nueces River
Nueces River
The Nueces River is a river in the U.S. state of Texas, approximately long. It drains a region in central and southern Texas southeastward into the Gulf of Mexico. It is the southernmost major river in Texas northeast of the Rio Grande...

 and the Rio Grande. Mexico, in turn, received $15 million. The war claimed fewer than 20,000 American lives but over 50,000 Mexican ones. It may have cost the United States $100 million. Finally, the Wilmot Proviso
Wilmot Proviso
The Wilmot Proviso, one of the major events leading to the Civil War, would have banned slavery in any territory to be acquired from Mexico in the Mexican War or in the future, including the area later known as the Mexican Cession, but which some proponents construed to also include the disputed...

 injected the issue of slavery in the new territories, even though Polk had insisted to Congress and in his diary that this had never been a war goal.

The treaty, however, needed ratification by the Senate. In March 1848, the Whigs, who had been so opposed to Polk's policy, suddenly changed position. Two-thirds of the Whigs voted for Polk's treaty. This ended the war and legalized the acquisition of the territories.

The war had serious consequences for Polk and the Democrats. It gave the Whig Party a unifying message of denouncing the war as an immoral act of aggression carried out through abuse of power by the president. In the 1848 election, however, the Whigs nominated General Zachary Taylor
Zachary Taylor
Zachary Taylor was the 12th President of the United States and an American military leader. Initially uninterested in politics, Taylor nonetheless ran as a Whig in the 1848 presidential election, defeating Lewis Cass...

, a war hero, and celebrated his victories. Taylor refused to criticize Polk. As a result of the strain of managing the war effort directly and in close detail, Polk's health markedly declined toward the end of his presidency.

Cuba


In mid-1848, President Polk authorized his ambassador to Spain, Romulus Mitchell Saunders
Romulus Mitchell Saunders
Romulus Mitchell Saunders was an American politician from North Carolina.Saunders was born near Milton, Caswell County, North Carolina. He was the son of William Saunders and Hannah Mitchell Saunders, attended Hyco and Caswell Academies and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill...

, to negotiate the purchase of Cuba
Cuba
The Republic of Cuba is an island nation in the Caribbean. The nation of Cuba consists of the main island of Cuba, the Isla de la Juventud, and several archipelagos. Havana is the largest city in Cuba and the country's capital. Santiago de Cuba is the second largest city...

 and offer Spain up to $100 million, an astounding sum at the time for one territory, equal to $ in present day terms. Cuba was close to the United States and had slavery, so the idea appealed to Southerners but was unwelcome in the North. But Spain was still making huge profits in Cuba (notably in sugar, molasses, rum, and tobacco), and the Spanish government rejected Saunders' overtures.

Department of the Interior


One of Polk's last acts as President was to sign the bill creating the Department of the Interior
United States Department of the Interior
The United States Department of the Interior is the United States federal executive department of the U.S. government responsible for the management and conservation of most federal land and natural resources, and the administration of programs relating to Native Americans, Alaska Natives, Native...

 (March 3, 1849). This was the first new cabinet position created since the early days of the Republic.

Supreme Court


Polk appointed the following Justices to the U.S. Supreme Court
Supreme Court of the United States
The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest court in the United States. It has ultimate appellate jurisdiction over all state and federal courts, and original jurisdiction over a small range of cases...

:
Justice Position Began active
service
Ended active
service
Robert Cooper Grier
Robert Cooper Grier
Robert Cooper Grier , was an American jurist who served on the Supreme Court of the United States.-Early life, education, and career:...

 
Seat 1 18460804August 4, 1846 18700131January 31, 1870
Levi Woodbury
Levi Woodbury
Levi Woodbury was an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, a U.S. Senator, Governor of New Hampshire and cabinet member in three administrations. He was the first Justice to have attended law school....

 
Seat 2 18450920September 20, 1845 18510904September 4, 1851


Woodbury was from New Hampshire, and Grier from Pennsylvania. Polk also nominated George W. Woodward of Pennsylvania in 1846, but the United States Senate
United States Senate
The United States Senate is the upper house of the bicameral legislature of the United States, and together with the United States House of Representatives comprises the United States Congress. The composition and powers of the Senate are established in Article One of the U.S. Constitution. Each...

 rejected the nomination.

Other courts


Polk appointed eight other federal judges, one to the United States Circuit Court of the District of Columbia
United States Circuit Court of the District of Columbia
The United States Circuit Court of the District of Columbia is a former United States federal court, which existed from 1801 to 1863.-History:...

, and seven to various United States district court
United States district court
The United States district courts are the general trial courts of the United States federal court system. Both civil and criminal cases are filed in the district court, which is a court of law, equity, and admiralty. There is a United States bankruptcy court associated with each United States...

s.

Congress


29th Congress (March 4, 1845 – March 4, 1847)
  • Senate
    United States Senate
    The United States Senate is the upper house of the bicameral legislature of the United States, and together with the United States House of Representatives comprises the United States Congress. The composition and powers of the Senate are established in Article One of the U.S. Constitution. Each...

    : 31 Democrats, 31 Whigs, 1 Other (President Pro Tempore – Willie P. Mangum (Whig-NC), Ambrose H. Servier (D-AR), and David R. Atchison (D-MO))
  • House: 143 Democrats, 77 Whigs, 6 Others (Speaker – John W. Davis of Indiana)


30th Congress (March 4, 1847 – March 4, 1849)
  • Senate
    United States Senate
    The United States Senate is the upper house of the bicameral legislature of the United States, and together with the United States House of Representatives comprises the United States Congress. The composition and powers of the Senate are established in Article One of the U.S. Constitution. Each...

    : 36 Democrats, 21 Whigs, 1 Other (President Pro Tempore – David R. Atchison (D-MO))
  • House: 115 Whigs, 108 Democrats, 4 Others (Speaker – Robert C. Winthrop of Massachusetts)

States admitted to the Union

  • Texas
    Texas
    Texas is the second largest U.S. state by both area and population, and the largest state by area in the contiguous United States.The name, based on the Caddo word "Tejas" meaning "friends" or "allies", was applied by the Spanish to the Caddo themselves and to the region of their settlement in...

     – December 29, 1845
  • Iowa
    Iowa
    Iowa is a state located in the Midwestern United States, an area often referred to as the "American Heartland". It derives its name from the Ioway people, one of the many American Indian tribes that occupied the state at the time of European exploration. Iowa was a part of the French colony of New...

     – December 28, 1846
  • Wisconsin
    Wisconsin
    Wisconsin is a U.S. state located in the north-central United States and is part of the Midwest. It is bordered by Minnesota to the west, Iowa to the southwest, Illinois to the south, Lake Michigan to the east, Michigan to the northeast, and Lake Superior to the north. Wisconsin's capital is...

     – May 29, 1848

Post-presidency




Polk's time in the White House
White House
The White House is the official residence and principal workplace of the president of the United States. Located at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW in Washington, D.C., the house was designed by Irish-born James Hoban, and built between 1792 and 1800 of white-painted Aquia sandstone in the Neoclassical...

 took its toll on his health. Full of enthusiasm and vigor when he entered office, Polk left on March 4, 1849, exhausted by his years of public service. He lost weight and had deep lines on his face and dark circles under his eyes. He is believed to have contracted cholera
Cholera
Cholera is an infection of the small intestine that is caused by the bacterium Vibrio cholerae. The main symptoms are profuse watery diarrhea and vomiting. Transmission occurs primarily by drinking or eating water or food that has been contaminated by the diarrhea of an infected person or the feces...

 in New Orleans, Louisiana
Louisiana
Louisiana is a state located in the southern region of the United States of America. Its capital is Baton Rouge and largest city is New Orleans. Louisiana is the only state in the U.S. with political subdivisions termed parishes, which are local governments equivalent to counties...

, on a goodwill tour of the South. He died at his new home, Polk Place, in Nashville, Tennessee
Nashville, Tennessee
Nashville is the capital of the U.S. state of Tennessee and the county seat of Davidson County. It is located on the Cumberland River in Davidson County, in the north-central part of the state. The city is a center for the health care, publishing, banking and transportation industries, and is home...

, at 3:15 pm on June 15, 1849, three months after leaving office. He was buried on the grounds of Polk Place. Polk's last words illustrate his devotion to his wife: "I love you, Sarah. For all eternity, I love you." She lived at Polk Place for over forty years after his death. She died on August 14, 1891. Polk was also survived by his mother, Jane Knox Polk.

Polk had the shortest retirement of all Presidents at 103 days. He was the youngest former president to die in retirement at the age of 53. He and his wife are buried in a tomb on the grounds of the Tennessee State Capitol
Tennessee State Capitol
The Tennessee State Capitol, located in Nashville, Tennessee, is the home of the Tennessee legislature, the location of the governor's office, and a National Historic Landmark. Designed by architect William Strickland, it is one of Nashville's most prominent examples of Greek Revival architecture...

 in Nashville, Tennessee. The tomb was moved to this location in 1893 after his home at Polk Place
Polk Place
Polk Place was the home of 11th President of the United States James K. Polk. It was his final residence, and was demolished in 1900. His tomb was located here until 1893, when it was moved to the Tennessee State Capitol. It was located in Nashville, Tennessee. An iron fountain was preserved...

 was demolished.

Reputation



Polk's historic reputation was largely formed by the attacks made on him in his own time; the Whigs claimed that he was drawn from a well-deserved obscurity; Senator Tom Corwin of Ohio remarked "James K. Polk, of Tennessee? After that, who is safe?" The Republican historians of the nineteenth century inherited this view. Polk was a compromise between the Democrats of the North, like David Wilmot
David Wilmot
David Wilmot was a U.S. political figure. He was a sponsor and eponym of the Wilmot Proviso which aimed to ban slavery in land gained from Mexico in the Mexican-American War of 1846–1848. Wilmot was a Democrat, a Free Soiler, and a Republican during his political career...

 and Silas Wright
Silas Wright
Silas Wright, Jr. was an American Democratic politician. Wright was born in Amherst, Massachusetts and moved with his father to Weybridge, Vermont in 1796. He graduated from Middlebury College in 1815 and moved to Sandy Hill, New York, the next year, where he studied law, being admitted to the bar...

, and the plantation owners who were led by John C. Calhoun
John C. Calhoun
John Caldwell Calhoun was a leading politician and political theorist from South Carolina during the first half of the 19th century. Calhoun eloquently spoke out on every issue of his day, but often changed positions. Calhoun began his political career as a nationalist, modernizer, and proponent...

; the northern Democrats thought that when they did not get their way, it was because he was the tool of the slaveholders, and the conservatives of the South insisted that he was the tool of the northern Democrats. These views were long reflected in the historical literature, until Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr and Bernard De Voto argued that Polk was nobody's tool, but set his own goals and achieved them.

Polk is now recognized, not only as the strongest president between Jackson and Lincoln, but the president who made the United States a coast-to-coast nation. When historians began ranking the presidents in 1948, Polk ranked 10th in Arthur M. Schlesinger’s poll. and has subsequently ranked 8th in Schlesinger’s 1962 poll, 11th in the Riders-McIver Poll (1996), 11th in the most recent Siena Poll (2002), 9th in the most recent Wall Street Journal Poll (2005), and 12th in the latest C-Span Poll (2009).

Polk biographers over the years have sized up the magnitude of Polk’s achievements and his legacy, particularly his two most recent. “There are three key reasons why James K. Polk deserves recognition as a significant and influential American president,” Walter Borneman wrote. “First, Polk accomplished the objectives of his presidential term as he defined them; second, he was the most decisive chief executive before the Civil War
American Civil War
The American Civil War was a civil war fought in the United States of America. In response to the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States, 11 southern slave states declared their secession from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America ; the other 25...

; and third, he greatly expanded the executive power of the presidency, particularly its war powers, its role as commander-in-chief, and its oversight of the executive branch." President Harry S. Truman
Harry S. Truman
Harry S. Truman was the 33rd President of the United States . As President Franklin D. Roosevelt's third vice president and the 34th Vice President of the United States , he succeeded to the presidency on April 12, 1945, when President Roosevelt died less than three months after beginning his...

 summarized this view by saying that Polk was "a great president. Said what he intended to do and did it."

While Polk’s legacy thus takes many forms, the most outstanding is the map of the continental United States, whose landmass he increased by a third. “To look at that map,” Robert Merry concluded, “and to take in the western and southwestern expanse included in it, is to see the magnitude of Polk’s presidential accomplishments.”

Nevertheless, Polk's aggressive expansionism has been criticized on ethical grounds. He believed in "Manifest Destiny
Manifest Destiny
Manifest Destiny was the 19th century American belief that the United States was destined to expand across the continent. It was used by Democrat-Republicans in the 1840s to justify the war with Mexico; the concept was denounced by Whigs, and fell into disuse after the mid-19th century.Advocates of...

" even more than most did. Referencing the Mexican-American War, General Ulysses S. Grant
Ulysses S. Grant
Ulysses S. Grant was the 18th President of the United States as well as military commander during the Civil War and post-war Reconstruction periods. Under Grant's command, the Union Army defeated the Confederate military and ended the Confederate States of America...

 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." Whig politicians, including David Wilmot
David Wilmot
David Wilmot was a U.S. political figure. He was a sponsor and eponym of the Wilmot Proviso which aimed to ban slavery in land gained from Mexico in the Mexican-American War of 1846–1848. Wilmot was a Democrat, a Free Soiler, and a Republican during his political career...

, Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States, serving from March 1861 until his assassination in April 1865. He successfully led his country through a great constitutional, military and moral crisis – the American Civil War – preserving the Union, while ending slavery, and...

 and John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams was the sixth President of the United States . He served as an American diplomat, Senator, and Congressional representative. He was a member of the Federalist, Democratic-Republican, National Republican, and later Anti-Masonic and Whig parties. Adams was the son of former...

 contended that the Texas Annexation
Texas Annexation
In 1845, United States of America annexed the Republic of Texas and admitted it to the Union as the 28th state. The U.S. thus inherited Texas's border dispute with Mexico; this quickly led to the Mexican-American War, during which the U.S. captured additional territory , extending the nation's...

 and the Mexican Cession
Mexican Cession
The Mexican Cession of 1848 is a historical name in the United States for the region of the present day southwestern United States that Mexico ceded to the U.S...

 enhanced the pro-slavery factions of the United States. Unsatisfactory conditions pertaining to the status of slavery in the territories acquired during the Polk administration led to the Compromise of 1850
Compromise of 1850
The Compromise of 1850 was a package of five bills, passed in September 1850, which defused a four-year confrontation between the slave states of the South and the free states of the North regarding the status of territories acquired during the Mexican-American War...

, one of the primary factors in the establishment of the Republican Party
Republican Party (United States)
The Republican Party is one of the two major contemporary political parties in the United States, along with the Democratic Party. Founded by anti-slavery expansion activists in 1854, it is often called the GOP . The party's platform generally reflects American conservatism in the U.S...

 and later the beginning of the American Civil War
American Civil War
The American Civil War was a civil war fought in the United States of America. In response to the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States, 11 southern slave states declared their secession from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America ; the other 25...

.

On the other hand, Sam Houston
Sam Houston
Samuel Houston, known as Sam Houston , was a 19th-century American statesman, politician, and soldier. He was born in Timber Ridge in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, of Scots-Irish descent. Houston became a key figure in the history of Texas and was elected as the first and third President of...

 is said to have observed that Polk was "a victim of the use of water as a beverage.

See also


  • James K. Polk Ancestral Home
    James K. Polk Ancestral Home
    The James K. Polk Ancestral Home, also known as James K. Polk House, is U.S. President James K. Polk's only surviving home other than the White House. It is located at 301 West 7th St., Columbia, Tennessee. The home was built by his father, Samuel Polk, in 1816...

  • Historical rankings of United States Presidents
    Historical rankings of United States Presidents
    In political science, historical rankings of Presidents of the United States are surveys conducted in order to construct rankings of the success of individuals who have served as President of the United States. Ranking systems are usually based on surveys of academic historians and political...

  • List of Presidents of the United States
  • US Presidents on US postage stamps

Ancestors





Primary sources

  • Cutler, Wayne, et al. Correspondence of James K. Polk. 1972–2004. ISBN 1-57233-304-9. 10 vol. scholarly edition of the complete correspondence to and from Polk.
  • Polk, James K. The Diary of James K. Polk During His Presidency, 1845–1849 edited by Milo Milton Quaife, 4 vols. 1910. Abridged version by Allan Nevins. 1929, online

External links




> > > > > >