James K. Polk

1795 - 1849

James Knox Polk, 11th president of the United States (1845-1849). He was one of the nation's most successful presidents. During his one term in office the United States expanded westward to the Pacific Ocean, California and the New Mexico Territory were won in the Mexican War (1846-1848), and the Oregon country was acquired through negotiations with Great Britain. A Jacksonian Democrat, Polk succeeded in putting the economic principles of the Democratic Party into law. However, he failed to prevent a split in his party over the slavery issue.

Despite his notable achievements, Polk has been consigned to relative obscurity among U.S. presidents. Although an able and extremely hard-working leader, he was not an imaginative statesman. However, as president he reflected the then-prevalent American belief in manifest destiny, the idea that the United States had a natural right to control all the territory between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. He was also a firm believer in the strictest interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine, which barred interference in the western hemisphere by European powers. Because he secured territorial growth, Polk is considered one of the most important of the American presidents.

Early Life

Polk was born in 1795 in a log cabin in Mecklenburg County on the North Carolina frontier. He was the eldest of ten children born to Samuel and Jane Knox Polk. His mother, a religious woman of great native intelligence, was a descendant of John Knox, the founder of the Presbyterian Church in Scotland. Both parents were descended from Scotch-Irish ancestors who had immigrated to America in the late 17th century.

Childhood Illness

In 1806, when James was 11 years old, the Polk family moved to the Duck river valley in central Tennessee, where Ezekiel Polk, James's grandfather, had a farm. James was not a healthy youth, and severe abdominal pains prevented him from leading an active life. His lonely, pain-ridden childhood made him an impassive and solitary figure who was never to have close friends. Above all, his poor health bred in him a fierce determination to compensate for his weak body by excelling others in the use of his mind. It was a strong ambition for a boy who, until he was 18, could barely read or write.

In 1812 Polk's father took him to Danville, Kentucky, where the famous frontier surgeon Dr. Ephraim McDowell had his practice. McDowell diagnosed his stomach pains as gallstones and recommended an immediate operation. There were no anesthetics at that time, and Polk had to be strapped to the table and held by his father while the operation was performed. Surgery was then a hazardous undertaking, but the operation was a success, and afterward Polk enjoyed better health.

Education

Polk began his formal education when he was 18, at a church school near his home. His driving will and hours of study resulted in extraordinary progress. In a year he mastered not only English grammar, but Greek and Latin as well. By this time his father was a wealthy land speculator and was financially able to send Polk to a better school in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where he continued his amazing progress.

He next applied for admission to the University of North Carolina and was found qualified for the sophomore class. He graduated in 1818 with first honors in mathematics and the classics. Of importance equal to his formal education was his introduction to politics at home. Both Ezekiel and Samuel Polk had been ardent followers of former President Thomas Jefferson. They were also friends and admirers of General Andrew Jackson, who was then Tennessee's leading citizen. These two men, Jefferson and Jackson, became Polk's political heroes and the greatest influences on his political career.

Lawyer

After graduating from college, Polk went to Nashville, Tennessee, to study law under Felix Grundy, who was Tennessee's leading lawyer and a power in the state legislature, called the General Assembly. During the following year, 1819, a severe depression hit the United States. Cotton prices dropped, credit was withdrawn, and there was widespread suffering throughout the agricultural regions of the West. Riding the judicial circuit with Grundy, Polk became aware of the political unrest caused by the depression. This experience reinforced his faith in Jeffersonian democracy and made him distrustful of banks, speculators, and paper credit.

In less than a year, Polk was admitted to the practice of law in Tennessee and established his own law practice in Columbia, Tennessee. Through Grundy's influence he also secured the post of clerk for the state senate, a chamber of the General Assembly. Polk continued to practice law but was drawn more and more into politics.

Early Political Career

The Assembly met at Murfreesboro, where, as a student, Polk had become acquainted with Sarah Childress, the daughter of a wealthy merchant. Polk's duties in the Assembly enabled him to renew his friendship with Sarah, and in 1822 they became engaged. Polk resigned his clerkship to run for a seat in the Assembly. Called the “Napoleon of the stump” by his supporters because of his small stature, he proved to be an effective campaigner and a skillful orator. Consequently, he was elected and it was Assemblyman James Polk who married Sarah Childress on January 1, 1824.

Sarah Polk was as vivacious and sociable as Polk was quiet and solitary. Their marriage was childless, and she devoted herself to her husband's career. When Polk was elected to national office, she became one of the most popular hostesses in Washington, D.C.

Assemblyman

Polk served in the General Assembly at a time when an important shift in political alignment was taking place among the voters. One side tended to represent the farmers and laborers, who were usually debtors. The other side reflected the interests of the creditor group, consisting of businessmen, merchants, speculators, and wealthy planters and farmers, who could afford to invest their money in Tennessee's growing economy. Polk quickly established himself as the champion of the debtor class and immediately became their leader in the Assembly. He supported free public education, “hard” (gold or silver) money, and other policies associated with Jeffersonian democracy. In 1825 Polk was elected to the lower house of the Congress of the United States.

United States Congressman

Polk entered Congress in the same year John Quincy Adams was inaugurated as president. Polk and other followers of Andrew Jackson were bitter over the election of 1824. Jackson had won a plurality of the popular and electoral votes. But because he lacked a majority of the electoral votes, the House of Representatives had to decide the election among the three candidates with the highest number of electoral votes. When Henry Clay, the candidate who had come in fourth, swung his support to Adams, Adams won the election.

Polk, with his firm belief in democratic rule, held that the election of Adams was a violation of the people's will. In his first speech before Congress he called for an end to the existing electoral system and for a constitutional amendment giving the people the right to elect the president by direct popular vote.

On all issues, Polk followed the Jacksonian line. He opposed the high protective tariff (tax on imports), high land prices, the national bank, paper money, and the financing of internal improvements such as roads, bridges, and canals with federal funds. Like Jefferson, whose philosophy the Jacksonians believed they followed, Polk placed his trust in an agrarian country and opposed all forces that strengthened the commercial and financial interests.

In 1828 Jackson was elected president, and Polk became the leader of the administration's bloc in the House. As such he took a leading part in Jackson's battles against federal financing of internal improvements, the protective tariff, and South Carolina's threat to nullify federal laws within its borders (see nullification). When Jackson sought to end the use of a national bank as a depository for U.S. Treasury funds, many Jacksonians defected to the Whig Party because they thought his policy was fiscally unsound. Polk, however, remained faithful and drew up the minority report that portrayed the bank as a tool of vested financial interests. Polk's handling of the issue in Congress contributed to the popular support given Jackson when he vetoed a bill renewing the bank's charter and began placing federal funds in state, or “pet,” banks instead of the national bank.

Speaker of the House

In 1835 the Jacksonians, who by now called themselves Democrats, elected Polk as presiding officer, or Speaker, of the House. With the retirement of President Jackson and the 1836 election to the presidency of his chosen successor, Vice President Martin Van Buren of New York, the Whig delegation in Congress grew stronger and more vocal. Bitter at what they considered Jackson's unconstitutional use of executive powers but unable to make a dent in his personal popularity, the Whigs took out their anger on Polk and Van Buren. Throughout his tenure as speaker, Polk was subject to constant insults and vituperation. He was called a “menial,” a “slave,” and a “servile tool” of Jackson, as well as a “petty tyrant” and “a cancer on the body politic.” Polk bore this daily abuse with composure.

Governor of Tennessee

Jackson's retirement was followed by a crippling economic downturn, the Panic of 1837, which many blamed on Jackson's fiscal policy. That, and Jackson's absence from public life, had weakened his party in his home state of Tennessee. In 1835 the Jacksonian Democratic Party had lost the governorship for the first time in the party's history. Polk seemed to be the only potential candidate who could win it back for them. Consequently, Polk resigned from Congress and in 1839 ran for governor of Tennessee. After a vigorous campaign, in which he spoke throughout the state, he was elected.

As governor, Polk spent much of his time revitalizing the Democratic Party. Meanwhile, his victory in 1839 had greatly impressed Democratic leaders throughout the nation, and even though he lost the elections for governor in 1841 and 1843, he had become a national figure and a potential candidate for the vice presidency in 1844.

Election of 1844

Former President Martin Van Buren was the leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1844. However, because he opposed annexation of the Republic of Texas, which had recently seceded from Mexico, he had little support in the South and West. The Democratic convention of 1844 was held in Baltimore, Maryland. After seven ballots it was clear that Van Buren could not win the two-thirds majority needed for nomination. On the eighth ballot, Polk was brought forward as a compromise candidate whom all segments of the party could support. He was unanimously nominated on the ninth ballot and became the first so-called dark horse, or little-known candidate, to win a presidential nomination.

The Whigs nominated Henry Clay. The primary issue in the campaign was Western expansion. Clay hedged on the question of Texas, while Polk came out forcefully for the annexation of Texas and the acquisition of Oregon from Great Britain. The Democratic campaign slogan became “54-40 or fight!” It meant that Polk was willing to fight Britain for the possession of Oregon north to the 54°40' parallel. This would have given the United States possession of what is now British Columbia northward to the southern tip of Alaska. The belief in manifest destiny was almost a religion in the West, and Polk's bold talk of expansion enabled him to win all the Western states except Ohio and Tennessee. However, Polk won the election only because a third candidate, James G. Birney of the antislavery Liberty Party, took enough votes away from Clay in New York to give Polk the state. In all, Polk had 170 electoral votes, Clay 105. In the popular voting, Polk received 1,337,243 votes and Clay 1,299,062 votes. George Mifflin Dallas of Pennsylvania was elected vice president.

President of the United States

Shortly after his inauguration, President Polk told his secretary of the navy, George Bancroft, that the four objectives of his administration would be the reduction of tariffs, the reestablishment of an independent treasury, the settlement of the Oregon boundary dispute with Britain, and the acquisition of California from Mexico. He achieved all four goals.

The Walker Tariff

The Democratic Party was traditionally opposed to the protective tariff that benefited manufacturers at the expense of Southern cotton planters, who imported most of their tools and supplies. The Whigs favored a policy of protection and tried to keep the tariff high. Now Polk, with his able secretary of the treasury, Robert J. Walker of Mississippi, drew up a new tariff schedule for revenue only, with “protection incident but not the object.” Minimum duties were placed on essential items, with higher rates on luxuries. To win support from the West, the administration argued that a low tariff would enable Western farmers to sell their surplus grain abroad. This was a new argument, but it carried the day, and the Walker tariff was passed. Besides lowering tariff rates in the United States, it encouraged the movement for free trade (the exchange of goods between countries with no tariffs) in Britain. The tariff was also influential in causing Britain to repeal its corn laws, which restricted grain imports. Thus, Western farmers were able to export grain to Britain for the first time.

Independent Treasury Act

Ever since Andrew Jackson had destroyed the national bank, Democrats had been seeking to establish a financial system, based on hard money, that would discourage paper credit and speculation. In 1840, President Van Buren succeeded in establishing the Independent Treasury System, a system of public depositories for storing and dispersing federal currency. However, the Whigs had continued to press for the reestablishment of a national bank. In 1841 they had a majority in Congress and, as a first step, succeeded in terminating the Independent Treasury System. They did not accomplish the second step—chartering a bank—because President John Tyler used his veto to prevent it. Then, when Polk was elected president, enough Democrats were swept in with him to dominate Congress. Polk was able, in 1846, to revive the Independent Treasury System, and it remained the basis of American fiscal policy until replaced by the Federal Reserve System in 1913.

Oregon Settlement

Beginning in 1843, thousands of Americans began settling in the Oregon country, which was claimed jointly by the United States and Great Britain. Britain claimed all the territory south from Canada to the Columbia River, which flowed near the 46th parallel. The United States claimed all the territory north of the Columbia to latitude 54°40'. The crux of the dispute was the triangle of land between the 49th parallel and the Columbia River, which is now part of Washington state. This area had been important to the British because of the fur trade, but when the price of beaver skins fell, Britain moved its trading post to Vancouver Island, north of the 49th parallel. Therefore, in 1846 the British foreign secretary, Lord Aberdeen, offered to compromise and accept the 49th parallel as the boundary (see Aberdeen, George Hamilton-Gordon, 4th Earl of). Despite previous demands for 54-40, Polk, on the Senate's advice, accepted the offer, thus extending the northwest boundary of the contiguous United States to its present position.

The Texas Question

Three days before Polk took office, President Tyler had signed a bill annexing Texas to the United States. This caused Mexico to break off relations with the United States. Mexico had two reasons for doing so. First, it had granted Texas its independence only on condition that Texas would attach itself to no other country; second, both Texas and Mexico claimed the strip of land between the Río Grande and the Nueces River.

In 1845, Polk sent diplomat John Slidell to Mexico with instructions to settle the boundary dispute and purchase New Mexico and California for up to $40 million. Having already seen its treaty with Texas violated because of U.S. expansionism, Mexico was in no mood to deal with the American emissary.

The Mexican War

Slidell's report from Mexico alarmed and angered Polk. In January 1846 he sent troops under General Zachary Taylor into the disputed area between the Río Grande and the Nueces. In late April a Mexican force under General Mariano Arista crossed the Río Grande and attacked an American patrol, killing or wounding 16 soldiers. On May 11, Polk sent a message to Congress and demanded a declaration of war against Mexico, claiming that Mexico had “invaded our territory and shed American blood.” His stated objective was the acquisition of California and New Mexico.

The war outraged many New Englanders and Whigs. In New England, those who wanted an immediate end to slavery, called abolitionists, viewed the war as a conspiracy to increase slave territory. In Congress a first-term Whig congressman, Abraham Lincoln, challenged Polk to show him the spot on American soil where American blood had been shed. However, the war was immensely popular with most Westerners and with a majority of Southerners.

In August, New Mexico fell to the forces of Brigadier General Stephen Watts Kearny. California, where Mexican rule had always been weak, fell before the combined assault of Commodore Robert Stockton's naval forces and the so-called Bear Flag army of Captain John C. Frémont. General Taylor invaded Mexico from the north, while General Winfield Scott invaded Mexico at Veracruz and marched inland to capture Mexico City.

The capture of Mexico City in September 1847 ended Mexican resistance, but a treaty of peace was not signed until February 1848. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo gave California and all the territory eastward to the existing frontier to the United States. The southern border of Texas was set at the Río Grande. Mexico received $15 million, and the United States agreed to assume responsibility for the claims against Mexico made by American citizens. Many Americans wanted to annex all of Mexico, but Polk resisted this pressure.

Wilmot Proviso

In August 1846 David Wilmot, a Pennsylvania Democratic congressman, offered a motion providing that slavery be forever barred in all lands obtained through the Mexican War. Polk, who owned slaves himself, had always looked on slavery as a necessary evil. He opposed with equal vehemence abolitionists from the North and apologists for slavery from the South.

In the debate over the Wilmot Proviso, Polk was determined to stay above the battle and side with no one. For this he was denounced by both sides. His neutrality only furthered the split between the Northern, radical wing of the Democratic Party, led by Van Buren, and the Southern, conservative wing, led by John C. Calhoun. The Wilmot Proviso controversy was finally settled by the Compromise of 1850, which admitted California as a free state and left the question open in the other new territories. However, Polk's refusal to side with the Van Buren wing and the fact that Texas did become a slave state strengthened the Southern wing of the party. Consequently, in 1848 many Northern Democrats who were opposed to slavery joined the new Free-Soil Party organized around that issue. This further solidified the proslavery faction's hold on the Democratic Party.

The Use of the Monroe Doctrine

All during Polk's administration, European nations had threatened to intervene in American affairs. There were British warships in California harbors during the Oregon dispute, and both Britain and France were interested in maintaining an independent Texas. Therefore, in December 1845, Polk revived the forgotten words of President James Monroe, who had declared that the American continent was closed to further European interference or colonization. In 1848, when Yucatán temporarily won its independence from Mexico and seemed in danger of becoming a French protectorate, Polk invoked the Monroe Doctrine again, with greater emphasis, making it a cornerstone of American policy in the western hemisphere.

Last Years

Having accomplished all his objectives in a single term, President Polk had no intention of running for the presidency again. In 1847 he had written in his diary that “though I occupy a very high position, I am the hardest working man in this country.” This was probably true, for Polk worked tirelessly to master all the details and carry out the duties of the presidency. He was succeeded in office by Zachary Taylor in March 1849 and returned home with his health broken. During his brief retirement, Polk's thoughts turned to religion. Though he had belonged to the Presbyterian church with his wife throughout their married life, his views were Methodist. In the late spring he sent for a Methodist minister and was received into that church. He died in 1849 at the age of 53. He was buried in the garden of his Nashville home, Polk Place, but in 1893 his remains and those of his wife were removed to the grounds of the Tennessee state capitol in Nashville.