Teaching through our historic sites


James K. Polk (1795-1849)

Born November 2, 1795 on a 150-acre farm worked by his parents, Jane and Samuel, James Knox Polk spent much of his childhood among the gently rolling hills of Mecklenburg County. The oldest of ten children, Polk was raised on tales of the American Revolution by his father, a prosperous farmer. A pious Presbyterian, Polk's mother was said to be descended from the fiery Scottish religious reformer John Knox. Both parents instilled in their son a fierce patriotism, a keen interest in politics, and a deep religious faith.

When Polk was eleven, the family sold the homestead and moved west to join his grandfather in Tennessee. After attending academies there, he returned to North Carolina, becoming an honor student at the University of North Carolina. After graduating in 1818, he went back to Tennessee, studied law, and established a practice. In 1824 Polk married Sarah Childress.

A successful lawyer, Polk entered politics as a representative in the Tennessee legislature. Then, for fourteen years, he served in the U.S. House of Representatives, including four years as speaker (1835-1839). His eloquent speeches, unfailing support of Pres. Andrew Jackson, and firm belief in Jeffersonian principles—"equal rights for all, special privileges for none, and friendship with the common people"--won him the nickname "Napoleon of the Stump." Also, because of his allegiance to Andrew Jackson, he earned the nickname "Young Hickory." In 1839 Polk refused re-nomination for Congress to become the Democratic governor of Tennessee. However, public sentiment shifted toward the Whig party, and he was twice defeated for a second term in both 1841 and 1843. It seemed that his political career had stalled.

However, Polk's enthusiasm for westward expansion saved his career, gaining him the Democratic presidential nomination in 1844. Polk became the first dark horse in American politics when he was chosen as the Democratic nominee for president against Henry Clay of the Whig party. The chief issues of the campaign were the annexation of Texas and the occupation of Oregon. Polk took a strong stand in favor of both. With a campaign slogan of "Fifty-Four Forty or Fight," referring to the northern boundary of the Oregon territory, Polk rode into the White House.

A highly determined man, Polk entered the White House with a clear-cut program. He set forth five goals, all of which he carried out successfully during his single term in office. He reduced the tariff, established an independent treasury, settled the Oregon boundary, annexed Texas, and acquired the California Territory, the latter resulting in an unpopular war with Mexico. During Polk's administration the United States acquired more than 50,000 square miles of western land, making it necessary to create a federal Department of the Interior.

In his campaign, Polk had called for annexing Oregon and Texas, though either measure might well mean war, and once elected the new president implemented his plans for expansion. Through a combination of military threats and diplomacy, Polk managed to arrive at a compromise with England that set the 49th parallel as the Oregon Territory's northern boundary.

Acquiring the rest of the West turned out to be a more bloody affair, the newly admitted state of Texas being at the heart of the matter. Though thousands of Spanish and Mexican documents showed that Texas' western boundary had traditionally been the Nueces River, Polk backed Texans' claims that their western border was the Rio Grande. Since Texas claimed the river all the way to its source, their stand implied that half of present-day New Mexico and Colorado was rightfully theirs. The Mexican government found this unacceptable and refused the United States' offer of about $40,000,000 for New Mexico and California. When U.S. general Zachary Taylor led an army across the disputed area to the banks of the Rio Grande in 1846, Mexican troops attacked and killed sixteen of his men. Polk seized upon this incident as proof of treachery and quickly got Congress to declare war on Mexico. This conflict came to be known as the Mexican-American War. Though the United States ultimately defeated Mexico's poorly-armed troops in some of the most destructive warfare ever witnessed to that time, ironically the acquisition of the West was little help to Polk politically. The inescapable issue of slavery soon crippled the nation's expansion, as Congress took up legislation that would prohibit slavery in all newly-acquired territories. Though now larger and richer, with the discovery of gold in California, the U.S. found itself on the road to civil war.

Polk's remarkable achievements can be credited to his personal dedication and sincerity, as well as the way he conducted his office. Though highly respected by those who worked for him, Polk impressed most Americans as distant and uncompromising. He stated he would not run for a second presidential term. Having long suffered from exhaustion, overwork, and general frail health, James K. Polk died June 15, 1849 at his home in Nashville only three months after leaving office. As the expansionist eleventh president of the United States, James K. Polk was perhaps more responsible than any other single person for setting the boundaries of what came to be the American West.

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