James Knox Polk (November 2, 1795–June 15, 1849) was the eleventh President of the United States, serving from March 4, 1845 to March 3, 1849. Polk was born in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, but mostly lived in and represented the state of Tennessee. A Democrat, Polk served as Speaker of the House (1835–1839) and Governor of Tennessee (1839–1841) prior to becoming president. He is presently the only former Speaker of the House to become President. He is noted for his expansionist beliefs, for his pledge to serve only one term, and for becoming the first "dark horse" (a candidate who unexpectedly gains the party nomination) to win the presidency.
His term is remembered for the largest expansion of the nation's boundaries since the Louisiana Purchase, through the negotiated establishment of the Oregon Territory and the acquisition of 1.2 million square miles (3.1 million square kilometers) through the Mexican-American War. He also oversaw the opening of the U.S. Naval Academy and the Washington Monument, and the issuance of the first postage stamps in the United States.
Polk, the first of ten children, was born on his family's 250 acre (1 km²) farm in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. His father, Samuel Polk, was a 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 called Maury County. The family grew prosperous, with Samuel Polk becoming one of the leading gentlemen of the area.
During his childhood, Polk suffered from poor health. In 1812, his father took him to Kentucky, where the then-famous surgeon Dr. Ephraim McDowell conducted an operation to remove his urinary stones- it is a common misconception that they were gallstones. Polk survived the risky surgery, although it is believed to have left him sterile. The surgery required him to have his legs up in the air while he lay on his back for hours while Dr. McDowell performed the surgery. The fact that Polk had no children and the location on his body that the surgery took place have left historians to come to this conclusion. Polk did enjoy comparatively better health during the rest of his life.
Polk was only educated informally during his childhood. His formal education began at the age of 18, when he joined a religious school 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. He graduated in 1818, returning to Nashville to study law under Felix Grundy. Polk was admitted to the bar in 1820, and established his own practice in Columbia.
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 courted Sarah Childress, and they married on January 1, 1824.
Polk became a supporter and close friend 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 principles; he opposed the Second Bank of the United States, favored gold and silver over paper money, 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 in the conflict over the National Bank.
Soon after Polk became Speaker in 1835, Jackson left office, 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 Whigs, with the latter often subjecting Polk to insults, invective, and challenges to duels.
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 not to seek another term in the House of Representatives. Leaving Congress in 1839, Polk became a candidate in the Tennessee gubernatorial election, defeating fellow Democrat Newton Cannon by about 2,500 votes. Though he revitalized Democrats in Tennessee, his victory could not put a stop to the political decline of the Democratic 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.
Election of 1844
Polk initially hoped to be nominated for vice-president at the Democratic convention, which began on May 27, 1844. The leading contender for the presidential nomination was former President Van Buren; other candidates included Lewis Cass and James Buchanan. The primary point of political contention involved the Republic of Texas, which, after declaring independence from Mexico 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. After six more ballots, when it became clear that Van Buren would not win the required majority, Polk was put forth as a "dark horse" candidate. The eighth ballot was also indecisive, but on the ninth, the convention unanimously nominated Polk, who had Jackson's support. Despite having served as Speaker of the House of Representatives, he was relatively unknown, leading many Whigs to snipe, "Who is James K. Polk?"
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 suffrages 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 Democracts 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 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, which was at the forefront during the Democratic Convention, once again dominated the campaign. Polk was a strong proponent of immediate annexation, while Clay seemed more equivocal and vacillating.
Another campaign issue, also relating to westward expansion, involved the Oregon Country, then under the joint occupation of the United States and the United Kingdom. The Democrats had championed the cause of expansion, informally linking the controversial Texas annexation issue with a claim to the entire Oregon Country, which appealled 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.) Polk's consistent support for westward expansion—what Democratic advocate John L. O'Sullivan would soon call "Manifest Destiny"—likely played an important role in the election's outcome.
In the election, Polk won in the South and West, while Clay drew support in the Northeast. Polk won the crucial state of New York, where Clay lost supporters to the third-party candidate James G. Birney. Polk won the popular vote by a margin of over 38,000, and took the Electoral College with 170 votes to Clay's 105. Polk's fellow Democrat, George M. Dallas, became Vice President. Polk was the first, and still the only, former Speaker of the House of Representatives to be elected President.
When he took office on March 4, 1845, Polk, at 49, became the youngest man to assume the presidency up to his time. Polk set four clearly defined goals for his administration: the re-establishment of the independent treasury, the reduction of tariffs, the settlement of the Oregon boundary dispute, and the acquisition of California from Mexico. Resolved to serve only one term, Polk acted swiftly to fulfill his campaign promises. In just four years, he would oversee the accomplishment of all his objectives.
In 1846, Polk proceeded to carry out his domestic agenda, but at the cost of much discontent in his own party. Congress approved the Walker Tariff (named after Robert J. Walker, the Secretary of the Treasury), which represented a substantial reduction of the high Whig-backed Tariff of 1842. The new law abandoned ad valorem tariffs; instead, rates were made independent of the monetary value of the product. Polk's actions were popular in the South and West; however, they earned him the contempt of many protectionists in the Northeast.
In the same year, Polk also approved an enactment restoring the Independent Treasury system, under which government funds were held in the Treasury, rather than in banks or other financial institutions. The Independent Treasury, created by the Democrats in 1840, had been abolished by the Whigs in 1841. After Polk re-established it, the Independent Treasury continued to remain in existence until 1920. The Independent Treasury Act, however, incurred the displeasure of many pro-bank Democrats.
Before Polk entered office, his predecessor, John Tyler, interpreted Polk's victory as a mandate for the annexation of Texas. President Tyler urged Congress to pass a joint resolution admitting Texas to the Union; Congress complied on February 28, 1845. Tyler had acted quickly because he feared British designs on Texas. The Republic of Texas did not accept the offer until later in the year, after Polk entered office; it officially became a part of the Union on December 29, 1845. This move angered Mexico, which had offered Texas its independence on the condition that it should not attach itself to any other nation.
Polk also sought to address 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 Democratic platform, which escalated tensions along the border.
Expansionists offered slogans like "Fifty-Four Forty or Fight!" This slogan, often associated with Polk, was in fact the position of his rivals in the Democratic Party, who wanted Polk to be as uncompromising in acquiring the Oregon territory as he had been in annexing Texas. Polk was not prepared to wage war with the British, however, and agreed to compromise 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. The portion of Oregon territory acquired by the United States would later form the states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, and parts of the states of Montana and Wyoming.
War with Mexico
After the Texas annexation, Polk turned his attention to California, hoping to acquire the territory from Mexico before any European nation did so. In 1845, he sent diplomat John Slidell to Mexico to purchase California and New Mexico for $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. Meanwhile, to increase pressure on Mexico to negotiate, in January 1846 Polk sent troops under General Zachary Taylor into the area between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande—territory that was claimed by both Texas 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 prepared to ask Congress for a declaration of war. Serendipitously, 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 now made this the casus belli, and in a message to Congress on 11 May 1846 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. A number of congressman expressed doubts about Polk's version of events, but Congress overwhelming approved the declaration of war, with many Whigs fearing that opposition would cost them politically. 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 declaration.
By the summer of 1846, New Mexico had been conquered by American forces under General Stephen W. Kearny. Meanwhile, American settlers in California, led by John C. Frémont, rebelled against Mexican rule, and established the independent California Republic. General Zachary Taylor, at the same time, met with success on the Rio Grande. 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.
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, staying 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 carved from the Mexican Cession. The treaty also recognised the annexation of Texas (and so the Mexican Cession includes the land annexed), and acknowledged American control over the disputed territory between the Nueces and the Rio Grande. Mexico, in turn, received the sum of $15 million. The war involved less than 20,000 American casualties, but over 50,000 Mexican ones; it had cost the United States nearly $100 million.
Polk is very arguably the only president ever to keep all of his major campaign promises. However, his considerable political accomplishments took their toll on his health. Full of enthusiasm and vigor when he entered office, Polk left the White House on March 4, 1849, exhausted by his years of public service. He lost weight, with deep lines and dark circles etched on his face. He was succeeded in office by the hero of the Mexican-American War, the Whig General Zachary Taylor.
Polk had planned a long and peaceful retirement, but he contracted cholera in New Orleans, Louisiana on a good will tour of the South. He died at his new home, Polk Place, in Nashville, Tennessee, at 3:15 on the afternoon of Friday, June 15, 1849. Polk's devotion to his wife is illustrated by his last words: "I love you, Sarah. For all eternity, I love you." She 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.
Polk had the shortest life of all Presidents except James A. Garfield and John F. Kennedy, both of whom were assassinated during their presidencies. His death, 103 days after leaving the White House, makes him the former president with the shortest period of post-presidency life in U.S. history.
He and his wife are buried in a tomb on the grounds of the Tennessee State Capitol Building, in Nashville.
Polk's primary legacy is the huge amount of territory acquired by the United States during his administration. His name is forever associated with Manifest Destiny—the idea that it was the United States' divine mission to expand westward. Polk was the first president after James Monroe to quote from and apply the Monroe Doctrine, which asserted that the Americas should be free from European colonization or other interference. Polk is sometimes regarded as the first effective wartime president, conducting the Mexican War more capably than James Madison had done in the War of 1812. Political partisanship was intense during Polk's administration, however, and he was not a popular president. He has fared better with historical hindsight, and in surveys many historians rate Polk as a near-great president. In these surveys, Polk is usually the highest ranked president who served only one full term, and the highest ranked in the era between Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln. Despite this, he remains a relatively obscure figure among the U.S. public.
Polk's role in the outbreak of the Mexican-American War has been the subject of much criticism. Some historians have concluded that he deliberately provoked a war of conquest; others suggest that he pursued a policy of brinkmanship which spiraled out of control. Furthermore, his uncompromising pursuit of Texas and California contributed to the growing mistrust between North and South in the United States, helping pave the way for the coming of the American Civil War in 1861, although this long-term consequence was apparent only in retrospect.
A number of United States counties are named after Polk. These include Polk County, Iowa, established in 1845, where the State Capitol, Des Moines, sits. Polk County, Oregon, originally established in 1845. Polk County in Northwest Georgia, was founded in 1851. Polk County, Florida was founded ten years later in 1861. Polk County, Nebraska was the fourth county founded West of the Missouri River in 1870. Polk County, Missouri, founded in 1835, was originally named in honor of Polk's grandfather, Revolutionary War hero Ezekiel Polk. When the Missouri legislature acted to create the county, they chose to honor James K. Polk, then Speaker of the House.
Polk is the subject of a song, "James K. Polk," by American pop group They Might Be Giants. It originally appeared on their 1990 EP Istanbul (Not Constantinople) as a B-side, and later appeared with the same lyrics but a different musical arrangement on their 1996 album Factory Showroom. The song is a surprisingly complete account of his presidential nomination and subsequent career, ending with a lament of his continued obscurity.
James K. Polk
George M. Dallas
Secretary of State
Secretary of the Treasury
Robert J. Walker
Secretary of War
William L. Marcy
John Y. Mason
Secretary of the Navy
John Y. Mason
Supreme Court appointments
Polk appointed the following Justices to the U.S. Supreme Court: