James K. Polk

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James K. Polk

Born November 2, 1795 Pineville, North Carolina

Died June 15, 1849 Nashville, Tennessee

President of the United States

Although he maybe one of the least well-known of all U.S. presidents, James K. Polk is often rated as one of the most successful. He was a strong supporter of expansionism and "manifest destiny." This was the belief that citizens of the United States had both a right and a duty to push beyond the nation's borders and settle in as much of the North American continent as possible. Polk served as president throughout the Mexican American War, signing both the declaration by which the conflict officially began and the peace treaty that ended it. He took a very active role in directing the U.S. war effort, thus helping to shape the future role of U.S. presidents. During Polk's one term, the United States grew by more than 1,000,000 square miles, but some claimed that in the process it lost its status as a just and peace-loving country.

A young lawyer and politician

James K. Polk was a member of a family of Scotch-Irish descent that had arrived in the United States in the seventeenth century and eventually settled in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina (near the city of Charlotte). Polk was the oldest of ten children born to Samuel Polk, a prosperous farmer, and Sarah Jane Knox. When Polk was eleven years old, his family moved by covered wagon to Tennessee, then a part of the state of North Carolina, where his grandfather was already a successful land speculator (someone who buys land and sells it again for a profit). There the Polk family lived on a thriving farm with thousands of acres of land that was worked by more than fifty slaves.

Polk was tutored at home until he was eighteen. He went on to study classics and mathematics at the University of North Carolina, graduating at the top of his class in 1818. Polk spent the next two years studying law with Felix Grundy, a successful lawyer who also had served as a member of the U.S. Congress. Polk became a lawyer himself in 1820 and established a law practice in Columbia. However, his intelligence and debating skill made him a natural politician, and he was elected to the Tennessee legislature in 1822, quickly developing a reputation as a promising young leader.

At this period in U.S. history, many citizens were becoming dissatisfied with the government, which seemed to have been run by the same group of leaders for its entire existence. A new system of political parties was evolving. These groups formed on the basis of common interests and beliefs. It was at this time that a new leader of the Democratic Party emerged. Often referred to by the nickname "Old Hickory" because of his toughness, Andrew Jackson (1767-1845)—a hero of the War of 1812 (1812-14) and Polk's cousin—pro-posed policies offering change and reform. As an avid Jackson supporter, Polk embraced Jackson's policies and even gained the nickname "Young Hickory."

Seven terms in the House of Representatives

Jackson was elected president in 1824. That same year, Polk married Sarah Childress, a well-educated woman whose refinement and social skills would make her an asset to the career of her more reserved husband. A somewhat short, slight person who usually had a sad expression on his face, Polk had very formal manners that made some people think he must be dull. Yet he was determined and firm in his beliefs, which included a strict interpretation of the U.S. constitution and an advocacy of states' rights. In other words, he believed that the federal government should not interfere too much in local affairs.

In 1825, Polk was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives for the first of seven two-year terms. During Jackson's time in the White House, Polk maintained close ties with the president and supported him on many issues. Elected Speaker of the House (the top leadership role in the House of Representatives) in 1835, Polk served for four years and worked so energetically that he permanently increased the power of this position.

Although Polk had not yet set his sights on the presidency, he had begun to think of himself as a possible candidate for the vice presidency. In pursuit of this goal, he ran successfully for the governorship of Tennessee. After serving a two-year term, he lost two successive re-election bids, in 1841 and 1843. As a result, Polk believed that his political career might be over, so he returned to farming. Nine months later, however, he was back in the spotlight when he came to the aid of the Democratic Party.

A "dark horse" candidate for president

As the 1844 presidential election approached, former president Martin Van Buren (1782-1862) was the leading contender for the Democratic nomination. But because he had antagonized many fellow party members with his stances against expansionism and slavery (two of the most controversial issues of the day), Van Buren was unable to get the majority of votes he needed to be nominated. At the last minute, the Democrats chose Polk as a compromise candidate who, everyone hoped, would be able to unite the many quarreling factions within the Democratic Party.

The Whigs (the other major U.S. political party) focused on Polk's status as a "dark horse," or unknown candidate, using the question "Who is James Polk?" as a taunt. Thus, Polk tried to inform voters about his positions, which included strong support for the two major expansionist issues of the period, involving Oregon and Texas. Since 1818, the United States and Great Britain had held joint control of Oregon, and now many people wanted the United States to take over the whole territory, which stretched north to the southern border of Russian-held Alaska. In fact, Polk's campaign slogan was "Fifty-four Forty or Fight!," which referred to that far northern parallel line.

Polk also agreed with those who wanted to annex (make a state) Texas, whose citizens had declared their independence from Mexico about ten years earlier and now wanted to become part of the United States. Mexico had threatened war if annexation did occur, but many expansionist-minded U.S. citizens actually welcomed this prospect as a chance to acquire not only Texas but the Mexican territories of California and New Mexico. Most members of the Whig Party opposed Texas's annexation, but at the last moment, the Whig candidate, Henry Clay (1777-1852), came out in favor of it. This caused a split in the Whig Party that allowed Polk to win the election by a very close margin.

The youngest president

The forty-nine-year-old Polk was the youngest president up to that time, and he took the helm of a nation that also was young and dominated by a mood of optimism, confidence, and ambition. Because he wanted to limit the friction within his own party and also prove that he would be a president to all U.S. citizens, not just Democrats, Polk promised to serve only one term and chose for his cabinet (the team of advisors that is made up of the heads of all the various government departments) men who claimed no presidential ambitions themselves.

Polk was to prove a very competent president with exceptionally strong administrative skills (he found many ways, for example, to tighten the government's budget and save a lot of money). And he was able to accomplish all of the major goals he set for his administration. One of these, of course, was the acquisition of the Oregon Territory. After the election, Polk softened his stance somewhat, offering a compromise to the British government by which the U.S. would take over the part of Oregon that was below the forty-ninth parallel, which already formed the border between the United States and British-held Canada east of the Rocky Mountains. After some haggling, the British eventually agreed to this arrangement, and the area that would become the states of Washington and Oregon became part of the United States in June 1846.

Meanwhile, the annexation of Texas had occurred just before Polk took office. As a result, Mexico had immediately broken off diplomatic relations with the United States, and war seemed likely. Polk was determined to assert the Rio Grande river as the boundary between Texas and Mexico, even though the traditional border had been the Nueces River, located about 100 hundred miles north of the Rio Grande. He also wanted to force Mexico to pay back debts owed to U.S. citizens, and, most ambitiously, to acquire California for the United States. He soon made it clear that although he would not rule out a peaceful means of achieving these results, neither would he shy away from an armed conflict.

War with Mexico on the horizon

Thus, in the summer of 1845, Polk ordered General Zachary Taylor (1784-1850; see biographical entry) to take several thousand U.S. troops to the Texas town of Corpus Christi, located on the Nueces River, where they were to protect Texas from Mexican aggression. In November, Polk sent former Louisiana congressman John Slidell (c. 1793-1871) to Mexico to try to negotiate with the Mexican government. Polk told Slidell to offer Mexico $25 million in exchange for California and New Mexico; Mexico must also recognize the Rio Grande as the border between the two countries, while the United States also would cancel all debts owed to U.S. citizens.

Mexico's president, José Joaquin Herrera (1792-1854), had more moderate views than some of the country's other leaders. He wanted very much to avoid war with the United States, but the other members of his government refused to even meet with Slidell, much less consider his offer. Slidell was forced to return to the United States, and Polk seethed with anger over this development. He immediately ordered Taylor to move his soldiers south to the Rio Grande and build a fort across the river from the Mexican town of Matamoros. During the remaining months of 1845, the U.S. force and a Mexican army under General Pedro de Ampudia (1805-1868) would watch each other warily from their different banks of the Rio Grande.

Polk was now waiting for a good reason to declare war on Mexico. In April, that opportunity arrived. More than one thousand of Ampudia's troops crossed the river, and when Taylor sent out sixty of his own soldiers to investigate, they were attacked and eleven were killed. As soon as Polk received this news, he sent a message to Congress asserting that the hostilities had now begun, and that Mexico had taken the first step. Now, he claimed, "Mexico has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory and shed American blood upon the American soil."

Leading the war effort

Despite a few dissenting voices, Congress agreed with Polk. The war declaration was signed on May 15, 1846, at which time Congress authorized $10 million to support the war effort. Congress also authorized the enlistment of fifty thousand volunteer troops. Attracting volunteers to fight in the war, especially at this early stage, before anyone knew what the fighting conditions would be like, was easy, since most U.S. citizens were in favor of the war, and many young men saw it as a romantic adventure that they assumed would be over soon.

The structure of the U.S. government makes the president the country's "commander-in-chief" during wartime, and Polk entered into this role with enthusiasm. Fighting this conflict meant raising, training, equipping, and moving large numbers of troops in a short period of time. Polk played a direct role in all of these details, as well as in appointing officers and making sure that the government was not wasting money. For instance, he discovered that wagons were being used in rough terrain that was much better suited to pack mules, and that horses were being transported across great distances, at great expense, when they could be purchased for much less in Mexico.

Polk also took responsibility for the U.S. war strategy. His initial plan was three-pronged: The United States would strike at Mexico through Santa Fe (in New Mexico), California, and the northern provinces located south of the Rio Grande. Choosing a commander to oversee this effort had been a problem for Polk, since most of the top-ranking officers of the U.S. Army seemed to sympathize with the Whig Party. Polk knew that any fame a Whig general gained during the war might propel this general into the White House, and Polk, as a loyal member of the Democratic Party, wanted to prevent this from happening.

A string of victories for the United States

At the time, the army's top officer was General Winfield Scott (1786-1866; see biographical entry), a much-respected veteran of the War of 1812 (1812-14). Polk disliked Scott, however, and as a result, chose Taylor, even though he was a Whig, to lead the invasion of northern Mexico while General Stephen W. Kearny (1794-1848; see biographical entry) would lead the Army of the West to California. Meanwhile, Polk continued to explore opportunities for peace, even agreeing in July 1846 to an ill-advised deal with Mexican general and former president Antonio López de Santa Anna (1794-1876). Claiming that he was the only leader who could control the situation in Mexico, Santa Anna convinced Polk that if the United States would allow him passage to Mexico from Cuba (where he had been exiled several years earlier) he would open peace negotiations with the United States. As soon as he reached Mexico, however, Santa Anna assumed the presidency and began gathering together an army with which he promised to crush the United States.

Santa Anna's grandiose promise was not to be realized, however. As the year 1847 began, the United States had taken control of New Mexico and California, and Taylor's forces had won important battles at Palo Alto, Resaca de la Palma, Monterrey, and Buena Vista against Santa Anna's much larger but poorly equipped army. It had become clear, though, that if the United States wanted to win the war, it would be necessary to capture Mexico's capital, Mexico City, located in the center of the country. In order to reach the city, an invasion would have to be launched from Mexico's eastern coast. Polk reluctantly turned to Scott to lead this invasion.

Despite Polk's negative opinion of him, Scott proved to be a skillful and dynamic commander. He launched his invasion in March 1847, bombarding the coastal city of Vera Cruz into submission, then marching southwest and winning the Battle of Cerro Gordo in mid-April, despite predictions that he would surely fail. The hard-fought conquest of Mexico City took place in September, ending with the Mexicans' surrender. Once the fighting was over, a lengthy and difficult process of peace negotiations could begin.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo

Polk had sent Nicholas P. Trist (1800-1874; see biographical entry), a Spanish-speaking U.S. diplomat (official representative of the U.S. government), to Mexico soon after the fall of Vera Cruz. Relations between Trist and Scott were unfriendly at first, but the two men gradually became friends, a circumstance that very much annoyed Polk. With the end of the war and Santa Anna's departure from office, Mexico City was thrown into political chaos. As a result, the peace talks were stalled while the Mexican government scrambled to reorganize. Just when they were about to begin again, Polk, impatient with the delay, ordered Trist to return to the United States. Unwilling to abandon the negotiations at such a crucial time, Trist ignored Polk's order.

On February 2, 1848, the Mexican and U.S. representatives signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, by which Mexico gave the United States California and New Mexico (an area of 525,000 square miles and almost half of Mexico's total territory) and recognized the Rio Grande as the border in exchange for $15 million and the cancellation of debts owed to the United States. Although Polk was angry at Trist for ignoring his order to return to Washington, he was quite pleased with the terms of the agreement that Trist had secured. Because the treaty was quite favorable to the United States, it was soon approved by Congress and signed into law by Polk on March 16. On July 4, amidst a celebration marking the laying of the cornerstone of the Washington Monument, the news arrived that Mexico, too, had ratified (officially approved) the treaty.

The war's consequences

As a result of the Mexican American War, the United States had grown by more than 1,000,000 square miles, and its boundaries were established (except for another small piece that would be added in 1853) as they would remain for the next century. Many of those who had supported the war claimed it had done much to establish the United States as a major power in the region and in the world. Nevertheless, a few critics continued to assert that the war had been conducted out of pure greed and thus damaged the moral reputation of the United States. Still others warned that it had deepened the sectionalism (the practice of favoring one's own region or area over others), and especially the hostility between southern slaveholders and northern abolitionists, that could threaten the nation's survival.

Indeed, as Polk's administration drew to a close, a fierce debate had begun about whether the states that would be carved out of the new territories would or would not allow slavery. Even earlier, in August 1846, Congressional Democrats who opposed slavery had drawn up a bill called the Wilmot Proviso, which would prohibit slavery in any and all territories acquired during the war. The bill was passed twice by the House of Representatives but was never approved by the Senate. Although he did not believe that slavery should be extended into any new states, Polk opposed the Wilmot Proviso as too divisive. He was unable to propose any more workable solution, and the debate would continue to rage over the next several decades. Eventually, tension over the slavery issue and that of states' rights would result in the secession of southern states from the Union, followed by the bloody Civil War (1861-65).

A determined president

True to the promise he had made when he took office, Polk did not run for re-election, even though it is likely that he would have won. On the day that President Zachary Taylor, who had coasted into the presidency on the strength of his status as a war hero, was inaugurated—March 5, 1849—Polk and his wife left Washington, D.C., for a tour of the South. By this time, Polk was physically exhausted and in ill health; he had worked very long hours during his presidency, and taken few vacations. Soon after his return to Nashville, Tennessee, Polk contracted cholera. He died only three months after leaving office, at the age of fifty-four.

Polk has been faulted by some of his contemporaries as well as historians for waging a war of pure aggression against Mexico, a war motivated not by self-defense, as he claimed, but by greed. Others have called him a product of his time and of the spirit of manifest destiny. In any case, it is generally agreed that Polk was an energetic, determined president who strengthened that office and achieved both the goals he set for himself and the promises he made the nation.

For More Information


Bergeron, Paul H. The Presidency of James K. Polk. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1987.

Haynes, Sam W. James K. Polk and the Expansionist Impulse. New York:Longman, 1997.

Sellers, Charles Grier. James K. Polk. 2 vols. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957-66.

Web Sites

"James Polk." The American President. [Online] Available http://www.americanpresident.org/KoTrain/Courses/JP/JP_In_Brief.htm (accessed on January 29, 2003).

"James K. Polk." The White House. [Online] Available http://www.whitehouse.gov/history/presidents/jp11.html (accessed on January 29, 2003).

"James Knox Polk." POTUS (Presidents of the United States). The Internet Public Library. [Online] Available http://www.potus.com/jkpolk.html (accessed on January 29, 2003).

Sarah Polk: The President's Partner

More sociable than her very reserved husband, Sarah Childress Polk played an important role in the White House and was much respected for her learning and social graces.

Sarah was born into a wealthy family that owned a plantation near Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Even though this was a frontier area, she grew up amidst culture and refinement. In an action that was unusual at a time when most people thought that education was wasted on girls, Sarah's father sent her and her sister to the Salem Academy in North Carolina. Considered one of the best schools in the South, it also was one of very few that admitted girls.

Thus, Sarah was not only refined but well educated when she met a young Tennessee legislator named James K. Polk (1795-1850), who had been her brother Anderson's classmate at the University of North Carolina. The two young people were married on New Year's Day in 1824. Polk served in the U.S. Congress for fourteen years, and Sarah usually accompanied her husband to Washington, D.C., for each year's legislative session.

The couple never had any children, but Sarah occupied herself with her very public role as the wife of a prominent law-maker and, eventually, as the nation's First Lady. She was known as a woman of both intellect and social skills, who could talk politics and also converse easily with guests, making them feel comfortable. She also helped her husband with his speeches and correspondence, advised him on various issues, and tried to keep him from overworking.

A devout member of the Presbyterian Church, Sarah discouraged Polk from receiving visitors on Sunday and banned the drinking of hard liquor at the White House (wine, however, was served at official dinners). Although she attended the inaugural ball (the ball traditionally held to celebrate a new president's taking office) she did not dance herself, as this went against her religious beliefs. Despite her somewhat strict views on such matters, Sarah was a popular First Lady.

Polk's term as president ended in March 1850. Worn out by his duties, he died only three months after leaving office. Sarah lived for another forty-three years, always dressed in the black clothing that marked her as a grieving widow. She adopted her orphaned grandniece, Sally Polk Jetton, who remained her beloved companion until the end of her life, which came just before her eighty-eighth birthday.

Sources: "Sarah Childress Polk." The White House. [Online] Available http://www.whitehouse.gov/history/firstladies/sp11.html (Accessed on January 31, 2003); Sarah Childress Polk, 1803-1891. [Online] Available http://www.jameskpolk.com/scpbio.htm (accessed on January 31, 2003).

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