James K. Polk

James K. Polk

11th President, 1845-1849

Early Life and Pre-presidency

James K. Polk Portrait by George Healy, 1858

James K. Polk Portrait by George Healy, 1858

  • Born on November 2, 1795 in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.
  • Parents: Samuel Polk and Jane Knox; Siblings: Jane Marie, Lydia Eliza, Franklin Ezekiel, Marshall Tate, John Lee, Naomi Tate, Ophelia Clarissa, William Hawkins, and Samuel Washington.
  • When he was 10 years old, the family moved to the Tennessee frontier to join his grandfather.
  • Was homeschooled before enrolling at the Zion Church in 1813 then at an academy in Murfreesboro, Tennessee in 1814. He transfered to the University of North Carolina in 1816 and graduated with honors in 1818.
  • Studied law in Nashville and was admitted to the bar in June 1820. While studying law, he was elected a clerk for the Tennessee State Senate, a position he held from 1819 to 1822.
  • Elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives in 1823 and served until 1825.
  • Married Sarah Childress (1803–1891) on January 1, 1824. They had no children. Many believe an operation he had at 17 years old to remove urinary stones caused him to become sterile.
  • Elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1825, where he became a major supporter of then President Andrew Jackson. In 1835, he became Speaker of the House and held that position until 1839.
  • As Speaker of the House, he sided with the policies of fellow Democrats President Jackson and then President Van Buren, going so far as appointing Democrats to chair committees.
  • Left Congress in 1839 to run for the governorship of Tennessee against the Whig Party, which was showing increasing popularity in the state. He won but lost his re-election bids in 1841 and 1843.
  • Polk ran as Vice President in the 1840 election but lost. He won one electoral vote from Tennessee.
  • During the 1844 Democratic Convention, Polk was seen as a possible Vice Presidential candidate to Martin Van Buren or Lewis Cass. Support for Van Buren fell when he voiced his opposition to the annexation of Texas. During numerous rounds of balloting, votes for Van Buren went down while votes for Cass went up. With the two failing to secure enough votes to win a nomination, Polk’s name was eventually thrown into the mix. He was seen as a compromise candidate who supported Texas annexation. In the ninth ballot, Polk won the nomination and became the Democratic nominee for President with George M. Dallas as his vice president.
  • Former President Andrew Jackson wielded considerable power during the 1844 Democratic Convention. He threw his support behind Polk instead of his former ally Van Buren because Polk also supported the annexation of Texas.
  • Was referred to as the “dark horse” and “compromise” candidate because of the manner in which he won his party’s Presidential nomination.
  • During Polk’s presidential campaign, he promised westward expansion by annexing Texas and acquiring the Oregon Territory from Britain. The majority of Americans accepted this vision and voted him into office.

Presidency

Daguerrotype by Mathhew Brady, ca. 1849

Daguerrotype by Mathhew Brady, ca. 1849

  • Took his oath of office on March 4, 1845 at the East Portico, U.S. Capitol.
  • He put forth a four-point agenda that he intended to accomplish during his four-year term: territorial expansion (including the Oregon Territory, California, and New Mexico), banking (reviving the Independent Treasury system), tariff reduction, and the slavery issue in the new territories to be acquired.
  • Vice President: George Dallas (1845–1849).
  • In 1845, the U.S. Naval Academy was opened under the direction of the Secretary of the Navy George Bancroft. In 1846, Polk oversaw the opening of the Smithsonian Institution.
  • A large wave of immigrants arrived in the U.S. during Polk’s term. Most of them were Irish, escaping the potato famine that pagued Ireland from 1845 to 1846.
  • Former President John Tyler signed the bill approving the annexation of Texas before Polk became President. Although the Republic of Texas had declared independence from Mexico in 1836, Mexico did not recognize this declaration and vowed war with the U.S. if they annexed Texas. Polk therefore had inherited a possible war with Mexico when he took office.
  • Texas joined the Union as a slave state and the 28th state on December 29, 1845.
  • In January 1846, Polk sent General Zachary Taylor and his troops to an area in the Rio Grande claimed by both the U.S. and Mexico to increase the pressure on the latter to negotiate the purchase of California and New Mexico, an offer that Mexico had rejected in 1845. When Taylor’s troops were attacked by the Mexicans, Polk asked Congress to declare war on Mexico, which it did on May 13, 1846.
  • A series of victories in California, New Mexico, and General Taylor’s victory in the Battle of Buena Vista in February 1847 eventually led to the capture of Mexico City by General Winfield Scott on September 14, 1847. All these victories put pressure on Mexico to sign a treaty of peace set out by Polk.
  • Polk agreed to ratify the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 that effectively halved Mexico, but gained for the U.S. California and the areas now comprising Nevada, Utah, most of Arizona, and parts of New Mexico, Wyoming and Colorado. In return, Mexico received $15 million.
  • Congress passed the Walker Tariff or Tariff of 1846, which was a key point in Polk’s agenda.
  • In 1846, Polk reached a compromise with the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Aberdeen, to set the boundary between British and U.S. claims in the Oregon territory. Both countries had jointly occupied the territory since the Treaty of 1818. The Oregon Treaty, signed on June 15, 1846, set the border at the 49th parallel. This gave the U.S. the area that is now covered by the states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and parts of Montana and Wyoming.
  • Vetoed the Rivers and Harbors Bill passed by Congress that would have provided federal funds for the improvement of rivers and harbors but that favored particular areas, even ports without foreign trade. Polk felt the bill was unconstitutional.
  • On August 6, 1846, Polk signed into law the re-establishment of the Independent Treasury system.
  • Because he had pledged to serve only one term, he did not run for re-election. His last act as President was to sign the bill that created the Department of the Interior.

Post-presidency

Photograph of James K. Polk and Sarah Polk

Photograph of James K. Polk and Sarah Polk

  • Retired to his newly purchased estate in Nashville, Tennessee, which he named Polk Place.
  • He went on a goodwill tour of the southern states from the Atlantic seaboard up to Tennessee. He was well received in all his stops.
  • Died on June 15, 1849 of cholera, which he might have contracted when he stopped in New Orleans, Louisiana when there was a cholera outbreak there.
  • His death just three months after retiring from the Presidency is the shortest retirement among all Presidents.
  • His last words were for his wife: “I love you, Sarah. For all eternity, I love you.”
  • In his will, he stipulated that all his slaves were to be freed upon the death of his wife. His wife died in 1891, but the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution approved in 1865 had freed all slaves long before her death.
  • Originally interred at Polk Place, but he was transferred to a tomb at the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville in 1893 when his home at Polk Place was demolished.
  • Most historians recognize him as the strongest President between Andrew Jackson (1829–1837) and Abraham Lincoln (1861–1865) because of his decisiveness and his role in strengthening the executive power of the presidency.
  • His most important legacy is the acquisition of the western territories that made the United States a coast to coast nation. Under his term, the area of the country increased by one-third.
  • Although he was able to accomplish most of the goals he set out to do, he left the issue of slavery in the newly acquired territories unresolved. He was in favor of extending the Missouri Compromise, which allowed slavery in the southern states but banned it in the northern states. This unresolved issue would later lead to the Civil War.
  • Polk’s ancestral house in Columbia, Tennessee, built by his father while Polk was studying at the University of North Carolina, was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1961.
  • The first official U.S. postage stamp was issued in 1847, during Polk’s term in office.
  • Groundbreaking for the construction of the Washington Monument was overseen by Polk in 1848. The monument was completed in 1888.
  • Although raised as a Presbyterian, he was never baptized as one. He converted to Methodism at age 38. At age 53, on his deathbed, he was baptized by the Methodist reverend who had converted him.
  • One of the few Presidents who accomplished nearly all points on his agenda.