James K. Polk

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James Knox Polk
James Knox Polk by Healy, 1858.jpg
11th President of the United States
From: March 4, 1845 – March 4, 1849
Vice President George Dallas
Predecessor John Tyler
Successor Zachary Taylor
Former Governor of Tennessee
From: October 14, 1839 – October 15, 1841
Predecessor Newton Cannon
Successor James C. Jones
Former U.S. Representative from Tennessee's 6th and 9th Congressional District
From: March 4, 1825 – March 3, 1839
Predecessor John Alexander Cocke
Successor Harvey Magee Waterson
Party Democrat
Spouse(s) Sarah Childress Polk
Religion Methodist

James Knox Polk (1795–1849) was the eleventh President of the United States, elected in 1844. Polk was governor of Tennessee and Speaker of the U.S. House. A Democrat, Polk was the surprise ("dark horse") candidate for president in 1844, defeating Whig Henry Clay by promising to annex Texas. He was a leader of Jacksonian Democracy during the Second Party System.

Polk is noted for his foreign policy successes. He threatened war with Britain then compromised and split the ownership of the Northwest with Britain. When Mexico called for war over the annexation of Texas, Polk responded aggressively, sending armies to protect Texas and conquer New Mexico and California, to invade northern Mexico, and finally to invade and capture Mexico City. When Mexico finally sued for peace he paid millions to acquire full title to New Mexico and California, but rejected suggestions to take over all of Mexico. He lowered the tariff and established a treasury system that lasted until 1913. He retired after one term and did not seek re-election. He died three months after his term ended.

As a Democrat committed to geographic expansion (or "Manifest Destiny") he overrode Whig objections and was responsible for the largest expansion of the nation's territory (exceeding even the Louisiana Purchase). He secured the Oregon Territory (including Washington, Oregon and Idaho), then purchased 1.2 million square miles through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican–American War. The expansionism, however, opened a furious debate over slavery in the new territories that was resolved by the Compromise of 1850. He signed the Walker Tariff of 1846 that brought an era of near free trade to the country until 1861. He oversaw the opening of the United States Naval Academy and the Smithsonian, the groundbreaking for the Washington Monument, and the issuance of the first postage stamps in the U.S. He was the first President of the United States to be extensively photographed while in office.[1] Presidential scholars have ranked him 8th to 12th on the list of greatest presidents for his ability to set an agenda and achieve all of it.

Early life

Polk, the first of ten children, was born in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, in 1795. His father, Samuel Polk, was a slaveholder, farmer and surveyor of Scots-Irish descent, and related to Scottish nobility. His mother, Jane Polk (née Knox) was a descendant of the Scottish religious reformer John Knox. In 1806, the Polk family moved to Tennessee, settling near Duck River in what is now Maury County. The family grew prosperous, with Samuel Polk becoming one of the leading planters of the area. When James was 11, his family moved to Nashville, Tennessee

During his childhood, James suffered from poor health. In 1812, his father took him to Kentucky, where the famous surgeon Dr. Ephraim McDowell conducted an operation to remove urinary stones. The operation may have left James sterile, as Polk never had children. For the rest of his life, Polk did enjoy comparatively better health.

Polk was home schooled; his formal education began at the age of 18, when he studied at Zion Church near his home. He later attended a school in Murfreesboro, where he met his future wife, Sarah Childress. After less than three years of attending the school, Polk left Tennessee to enroll in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. While there, he practiced his oratorical skills as a member of the Dialectic Society. He graduated in 1818 and returned to Nashville, Tennessee to study law under Felix Grundy. Polk was admitted to the bar in 1820, and established his own practice in Columbia, Tennessee. He worked with Aaron V. Brown, future governor of Tennessee and postmaster general.

Career as slaveholder

Polk was a slaveholder for almost his entire adult life. His father Samuel left title to over 8,000 acres of land and about 53 slaves to his widow and his children. James inherited control over nine of his father's slaves, either directly or from deceased brothers. In 1831, he became an absentee cotton planter, sending slaves to clear plantation land that his father had left him near Somerville, Tennessee. Three years later he sold his Somerville plantation and, together with his brother-in-law, bought 920 acres of land, a cotton plantation near Coffeeville, Mississippi. He ran this plantation for the rest of his life, eventually taking it over completely from his brother-in-law. He infrequently bought more slaves and sold others, although once he became President and could better afford it, he bought more slaves. Polk's will stipulated that their slaves were to be manumitted (freed) after both he and his wife Sarah had died. However, the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation and the 1865 Thirteenth Amendment freed all remaining slaves in rebel states some more than twenty years before the death of his wife in 1891.

Political career

Polk was brought up as a Jeffersonian Democrat, for his father and grandfather were strong supporters of Thomas Jefferson. The first public office he held was that of chief clerk of the Senate of Tennessee (1821–1823); he resigned the position in order to run his successful campaign for the state legislature. Polk's oratory became popular, earning him the nickname "Napoleon of the Stump." He married Sarah Childress, on January 1, 1824.

Polk became a supporter of Andrew Jackson, then the leading politician of Tennessee. In 1824, Jackson ran for President, while Polk campaigned for the House of Representatives. Polk succeeded, but Jackson was defeated. Though Jackson had won the popular vote, neither he nor any of the other candidates (John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, and William H. Crawford) had obtained a majority of the electoral vote, allowing the House of Representatives to select the victor. In his first speech, Polk expressed his belief that the House's decision to choose Adams was a violation of the will of the people; he even proposed (unsuccessfully) that the Electoral College be abolished.

In Congress, Polk was a firm supporter of Jacksonian Democracy; he opposed the Second Bank of the United States, favored gold and silver over paper money; distrusted banks; and preferred agricultural interests over industrial ones. This behavior earned him the nickname "Young Hickory," an allusion to Andrew Jackson's sobriquet, "Old Hickory." After Jackson defeated Adams in the presidential election of 1828, Polk rose in prominence, becoming the leader of the pro-Administration faction in Congress. As chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, he lent his support to the President to abolish the National Bank.

Speaker of the House

Polk became speaker in 1835. Jackson left office two years later, to be succeeded by fellow Democrat Martin Van Buren. Van Buren's term was a period of heated political rivalry between the Democrats and the Whig Party, with the latter often subjecting Polk to insults, invectives, and challenges to duels.

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—convinced Polk to return to help the party at home. Leaving Congress in 1839, Polk became a candidate in the Tennessee gubernatorial election, defeating Whig incumbent Newton Cannon. Though he revitalized Democrats in Tennessee, his victory could not put a stop to the political decline of the Democrat Party elsewhere in the nation. In the presidential election of 1840, Van Buren was overwhelmingly defeated by a popular Whig, William Henry Harrison. Polk lost his own gubernatorial re-election bid to a Whig, James C. Jones, in 1841. He challenged Jones in 1843 but was defeated once again. Throughout all three of these campaigns, he focused on the policy differences on the economy between the Whigs and the Democrats. He attacked the Whig platform on economic policies during these campaigns. These three campaigns of attacking the Whigs largely helped him gain national spotlight within the Democrat Party, which helped him win the nomination for president in 1844.

Election of 1844

Democrats who rallied for Polk in the 1844 election marched behind these cloth banners.

Polk initially hoped to be nominated for vice-president at the Democrat Convention, in May 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 (a moderate) and General Lewis Cass (an expansionist). The primary point of political contention involved the annexation of the Republic of Texas, which, after winning independence from Mexico in 1836, sought 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.

1844 convention

Prior the convention, Jackson told Polk that he was his favorite for the nomination. Even with this support, Polk still instructed his managers at the convention to support Van Buren, but only if it was certain that Van Buren had a chance to win the nomination. This assured that if a deadlock 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.

A Southern, anti-Van Buren faction, angered at Van Buren's opposition to Texas, took control of the convention on the first day by having one of its own elected as convention chairman. The faction controlled the proceedings sufficiently to keep Van Buren from winning the needed two-thirds vote on the first ballot. Polk entered the race on the sixth ballot and won the nomination on the seventh, when Van Buren supporters, strongly opposed to the nomination of front-runner Lewis Cass, stampeded to the dark horse Polk camp. Polk quickly moved to win the support of Van Buren, Cass, and other aspirants to the presidency by announcing his intention to serve only one term. He also sought to smooth over relations with Northern Democrats by assuring them he was not involved in the plot to reject Van Buren's nomination. With the assistance of party patriarch Andrew Jackson, he also succeeded in persuading incumbent John Tyler not to run for reelection. Polk managed to win a particularly vitriolic presidential race against Whig Henry Clay, despite losing his home state.

Because the Democrat 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.[2]

Polk's Whig opponent was Henry Clay of Kentucky. (Incumbent Whig President John Tyler—a former Democrat—had become estranged from the Whigs and was not nominated for a second term.) The question of the annexation of Texas dominated the campaign. Polk was a strong proponent of immediate annexation, while Clay seemed more equivocal and vacillating.

Note the star for Texas--Polk promised to bring it inside the Union

Another campaign issue, also relating to westward expansion, involved the Oregon Country, then under the joint occupation of the United States and Great Britain. 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.) Polk's consistent support for westward expansion—what Democrats would later call "Manifest Destiny"—likely played an important role in his victory, as it united all the Democratic factions.

In the election, Polk won in the South and West, while Clay drew support in the Northeast. Polk lost his home state of Tennessee but won the crucial state of New York (with the support of many Van Buren supporters, since it was his home state), where Clay lost supporters to the third-party candidate James G. Birney of the Liberty Party, who was anti-slavery. Also contributing to Polk's victory was the support of new immigrant voters, mostly Irish and German Catholic, who were angered at the Whigs' nativism. Polk won the popular vote by a margin of about 38,000 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 still the only Speaker of the House of Representatives ever to be elected President of the United States.


Polk's policies were successful, despite a Whig cartoonist expecting them to collapse like a house of cards.

When he took office on March 4, 1845, Polk, at 49, became the youngest man to assume the presidency at the time. According to a story told decades later by George Bancroft, Polk set four clearly defined goals for his administration: the re-establishment of the Independent Treasury System, the reduction of tariffs, acquisition of some or all the Oregon boundary dispute, and the purchase of California from Mexico. Resolved to serve only one term, he accomplished all these objectives in just four years. By linking new lands in Oregon (with no slavery) and Texas (with slavery) he hoped to satisfy both North and South.

Fiscal policy

In 1846, Congress approved the Walker Tariff (named after Robert J. Walker, his Secretary of the Treasury), which represented a substantial reduction of the high Whig-backed Tariff of 1842. The new law abandoned ad valorem (for example, 5% of the value) tariffs; instead, rates were made independent of the monetary value of the product (for example, 10 cents per pound). Polk's actions were popular in the South and West; however, they angered many Democrats in Pennsylvania who wanted high tariffs to protect their iron industry.

In 1846, Polk approved a law restoring the Independent Treasury System, under which government funds were held in the Treasury rather than in banks or other financial institutions. This established independent treasury deposit offices, separate from private or state banks, to receive all government funds.


Polk's views on slavery made his presidency bitterly controversial between proponents of slavery, opponents of slavery, and advocates of compromise, and the effect of his own career as a plantation slaveholder on his policymaking has been argued. During his presidency, many abolitionists harshly criticized him as an instrument of the "Slave Power," and claimed that the expansion of slavery lay behind his support for the annexation of Texas 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 that would forbid it there. Polk argued instead for extending the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific Ocean, which would prohibit the expansion of slavery above 36° 30' west of Missouri, but allow it below that line if approved by eligible voters in the territory.

Foreign policy

Polk was committed to expansion—Democrats believed that opening up more farms for yeoman farmers was critical for the success of republican virtue. (See Manifest Destiny.) To balance the interests of North and South he sought the Oregon territory (comprised of present-day Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and British Columbia), as well as Texas. He sought to purchase California, which Mexico had neglected.


President Tyler interpreted Polk's victory as a mandate for the annexation of Texas. Acting quickly because he feared British designs on Texas, Tyler urged Congress to pass a joint resolution admitting Texas to the Union as a state. Congress complied on February 28, 1845. Texas promptly accepted the offer and officially became a state on December 29, 1845. The annexation angered Mexico, however, which had succumbed to heavy British pressure and had offered Texas its semi-independence on the condition that it should not attach itself to any other nation. Mexican politicians had repeatedly warned that annexation meant war.

Oregon territory

Polk put heavy pressure on Britain to resolve the Oregon boundary dispute. Since 1818, the territory had been under the joint occupation and control of Great Britain and the United States. Previous U.S. administrations had offered to divide the region along the 49th parallel, which was not acceptable to the British, who had commercial interests along the Columbia River. Although the Democratic platform had asserted a claim to the entire region, Polk was prepared to quietly compromise. When the British again refused to accept the 49th parallel boundary proposal, Polk broke off negotiations and returned to the "All Oregon" position of the Democrat platform, which escalated tensions along the border.

Expansionists after the 1844 election shouted "Fifty-Four Forty or Fight!" This slogan, often associated with Polk, was in fact the position of his rivals in the Democrat Party, who wanted Polk to be as uncompromising in acquiring the Oregon territory as he had been in annexing Texas. Polk wanted territory, not war, and compromised with the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Aberdeen. The Oregon Treaty of 1846 divided the Oregon Country along the 49th parallel, the original American proposal. Although there were many who still clamored for the whole of the territory, the treaty was approved by the Senate. By doing this, Polk angered many Midwestern Democrats by settling for the 49th parallel. Many of these Midwestern 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. The portion of Oregon territory acquired by the United States would later form the states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, and parts of Montana and Wyoming.

War with Mexico

For a more detailed treatment, see 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 as an access point for trade with Asia. In 1845, he sent diplomat John Slidell to Mexico to purchase California and New Mexico for $20–30 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 into the area between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande—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",[3] and he prepared to ask Congress for a declaration of war. Coincidentally, 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 troops. Polk then made this the casus belli, 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." He did not point out that the territory in question was disputed and did not unequivocally belong to the United States. Whig Congressman Abraham Lincoln, expressed doubts about Polk's version of events, challenging the factual claims made by President Polk about the boundary, claiming it was indeterminate and should not have been a cause of war.[4] but Congress overwhelmingly approved the declaration of war, many Whigs fearing that opposition would cost them politically by casting themselves as unpatriotic for not supporting the war effort.[5] In the House, anti-slavery Whigs led by John Quincy Adams voted against the war; among Democrats, Senator John C. Calhoun was the most notable opponent of the war, because it implied the annexation of the Mexican people, who could not easily be assimilated.

By the summer of 1846, American forces under General Stephen W. Kearny had captured New Mexico. Meanwhile, Army captain John C. Frémont led settlers in northern California to overthrow the Mexican garrison in Sonoma. 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, 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 Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott 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 they agreed to peace terms set out by Polk.

Polk sent diplomat Nicholas Trist 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 in 1848, which Polk agreed to ratify, ignoring calls from Democrats who demanded the annexation of the whole of Mexico. The treaty added 1.2 million square miles (3.1 million square kilometers) of territory to the United States; Mexico's size was halved, whilst that of the United States increased by a third. California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming 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 and the Rio Grande. Mexico, in turn, received the sum of $15 million. The war claimed less than 20,000 American casualties but over 50,000 Mexican casualties. It had cost the United States nearly $100 million. Finally, the Wilmot Proviso injected the issue of slavery in the new territories, even though Polk had insisted to other congressmen 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. Later in 1848, the Whigs nominated Zachary Taylor, the hero of the war, for president. Taylor said there would be no future wars, but he refused to criticize Polk, who kept his promise not to run for reelection.

The war had serious consequences for Polk and the Democrats. One was that the war had given the Whig Party a unifying message of denouncing the war as a whole (even though they did vote for the funding of it) as an immoral abuse of power by the President by taking land from Mexico. The second was that the war had taken a toll on Polk's health. As a result of Polk managing the war effort directly, and by paying attention to every detail very closely, his health markedly declined toward the end of his presidency.


In the summer of 1848, Polk authorized his ambassador to Spain to negotiate the purchase of Cuba and offer Spain up to $100 million, an astounding sum of money at the time for one territory. Cuba was close to the United States and had slavery, so the idea appealed to Southerners but was unwelcome in the North. The Spanish government rejected Polk's overtures.


Polk's time in the White House took its toll on his health. Full of enthusiasm and vigor when he entered office, Polk left exhausted by his years of public service. He lost weight and had deep lines on his face and dark circles under his eyes. He apparently contracted cholera in New Orleans, on a goodwill tour of the South. He died at his new home, Polk Place, in Nashville. His widow Sarah lived at Polk Place for over forty years after his passing, a retirement longer than that of any other First Lady of the United States. She died on August 14, 1891.


  • Bergeron, Paul H. The Presidency of James K. Polk. 1986. excerpt and text search
  • Borneman, Walter R. Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America (2008), standard scholarly biography. ISBN 978-1-4000-6560-8
  • Dusinberre, William. Slavemaster President: The Double Career of James Polk. 2003. online edition
  • Haynes, Sam W. James K. Polk and the Expansionist Impulse. (2001).
  • Leonard, Thomas M. James K. Polk: A Clear and Unquestionable Destiny. (2000) excerpt and text search.
  • McCormac, Eugene Irving. James K. Polk: A Political Biography (1922) online edition
  • Merry, Robert W. A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent (2009) 576pp; excellent new biography excerpt abd text search
  • Paul, James C. N. Rift in the Democracy. 1951. on 1844 election online edition
  • Sellers, Charles. James K. Polk, Jacksonian, 1795-1843. 1957 and James K. Polk, Continentalist, 1843-1846. 1966. standard scholarly biography vol 1 and 2 are online at ACLS e-books
  • Seigenthaler, John. James K. Polk: 1845–1849. (2003). short popular biography
  • Smith, Justin H. The War with Mexico 2 vol (1919); Pulitzer Prize; 2:233-52; online vol 1; online vol 2 Pulitzer Prize winner.


  1. The White House Historical Association, retrieved January 23, 2007
  2. Sam W. Haynes, James K. Polk and the Expansionist Impulse. 2001. p.61-2
  3. Haynes p. 129
  4. see Congressional Globe, 30th Session (1848) pp.93-95
  5. In January 1848, the Whigs won a House procedural vote attacking Polk in an amendment to a resolution praising Major General Taylor for his service in a "war unnecessarily and unconstitutionally begun by the President of the United States". See House Journal, 30th Session (1848) pp.183-184 The resolution, however, died in committee.

External links