James K. Polk Biography
James K. Polk was the 11th President of the United States, serving from 1845 to 1849. He was born on November 2, 1795, in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. Polk was a Democrat who is best known for his expansionist policies and belief in Manifest Destiny which led to the Mexican-American War and the annexation of Texas, California, and much of the Southwest. During his presidency, he also established the Independent Treasury System, reducing the influence of banks on government finances. Polk was the youngest person ever elected to the presidency at the age of 49 and he did not seek re-election, making him the only president to serve a single term and then retire from public life.
Quick Facts About James K. Polk
- Date of Birth: James K. Polk was born on November 2, 1795, on his family’s farm in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, near Charlotte.
- Parents: Polk’s parents were Samuel and Jane Knox Polk.
- Date of Death: Polk died on June 15, 1849, at age 53, at his home, “Polk Placed” in Nashville, Tennessee.
- Buried: Polk is buried on the grounds of the Tennessee State Capitol in downtown Nashville, Tennessee.
- Nickname: Polk’s nickname was “Young Hickory.”
Overview of the Life and Career of James K. Polk
James Knox Polk was born on his family’s farm in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, near Charlotte, on November 2, 1795. He was the first of ten children born to Samuel and Jane Knox Polk. Polk’s father was a successful planter, surveyor, and businessman.
In 1806, when James was ten years old, Samuel Polk moved his family by covered wagon across the Appalachian Mountains to Middle Tennessee. Settling in Maury County, near Columbia, the elder Polk gradually carved out an extensive plantation worked by over fifty slaves.
As a child, Polk was home-schooled because he was often ill. In 1812, shortly before his seventeenth birthday, Polk underwent a painful operation to remove stones from his urinary tract without the benefit of anesthesia. The successful surgery enabled Polk to pursue more formal educational opportunities away from home. He began preparing for college, first under the tutelage of Robert Henderson, a local minister, and then at Bradley Academy in Murfreesboro. Polk proved to be an outstanding student who was admitted to the University of North Carolina with a sophomore standing in 1815. Three years later, he graduated as the top student in his class.
After receiving his college degree, Polk returned to Tennessee and studied law under the direction of the renowned attorney and Tennessee legislator Felix Grundy. In 1819, Grundy sponsored Polk’s election as clerk of the Tennessee Senate. While serving in his new post, Polk completed his studies, passed his examinations, and was admitted to the bar in 1820. He then returned to Maury County and opened a law practice with Aaron V. Brown.
While Polk practiced law in Maury County, he continued serving as clerk of the Tennessee Senate. In 1822 he joined the Tennessee militia as a captain in a cavalry regiment. The same year, he resigned from his post with the senate to campaign for a seat in the state legislature. The next year, Maury County voters elected Polk by a wide margin and he took his seat in August. Two months later, Polk made one of the more important political decisions of his career when he voted for Andrew Jackson‘s election as United States Senator from Tennessee. Jackson repaid Polk’s loyalty by becoming a mentor and lifelong supporter of the up-and-coming young politician.
Marriage and Family
While Polk was serving as senate clerk in Murfreesboro, he began courting Sarah Childress, the daughter of an influential Tennessee family. Soon after Polk assumed his seat in the Tennessee Legislature, the couple wed on January 1, 1824. Their marriage produced no offspring, probably because Polk’s surgery as a youth left him incapable of fathering children. Throughout their marriage, Sarah served as a trusted political advisor to her husband.
United States Congressman
Polk served only two years in the Tennessee Legislature. In 1824, he set his sights higher and began campaigning for a seat in the United States House of Representatives. In August 1825, voters from Tennessee’s 6th Congressional District elected Polk to represent them in Congress.
Reelected three more times, Polk represented the people of the 6th District in the House of Representatives in the 19th through 22nd Congresses from December 5, 1825, until March 3, 1833. Following congressional redistricting in Tennessee, voters of the 9th District elected Polk to represent them in the 23rd through 25th Congresses from March 4, 1837, to March 4, 1839. In total, Polk served seven consecutive terms in the House of Representatives. During the 24th and 25th Congresses, members elected Polk as Speaker of the House.
As a member of the Jacksonian wing of the Democratic Party, Polk was Andrew Jackson’s strongest supporter in the House of Representatives before and during Old Hickory’s presidency. Like Jackson, Polk distrusted the national bank, opposed federal financing of internal improvements, and favored tariffs that favored the South. Polk’s political views and House votes so closely mirrored Old Hickory’s ideology that some people referred to him as Young Hickory.
The Gag Rule Silences Anti-Slavery Petitions
During Polk’s stint as Speaker of the House, abolitionist organizations, such as the American Anti-Slavery Society, urged citizens to flood the House with petitions opposing slavery. As the number of petitions increased from hundreds to thousands – signed by hundreds of thousands of voters – alarmed Southern Congressmen went on the offensive. When William Jackson of Massachusetts introduced an anti-slavery petition in the House on December 18, 1835, James Henry Hammond of South Carolina moved that the House not consider it. For the next two months, House members wrangled over Hammond’s motion. On February 4, 1836, Henry L. Pinckney of South Carolina proposed merging all anti-slavery petitions and referring them to a select committee, charged with determining the authority of Congress to regulate slavery in the territories and in the District of Columbia. Speaker Polk consented and appointed a committee to study the matter and draft recommendations. Predetermining the outcome, Polk designated Pinckney to serve as the chair of the committee. Three months later, the Pinckney Committee submitted its report, which concluded that Congress had no constitutional authority to regulate slavery in the territories and that it would be “impolitic” for it to disturb the status of slavery in the nation’s capital. The committee recommended that:
All petitions, memorials, resolutions, propositions, or papers, relating in any way, or to any extent whatsoever, to the subject of slavery or the abolition of slavery, shall, without being either printed or referred, be laid on the table and that no further action whatever shall be had thereon.
Rationalizing its proposal to table all petitions related to slavery, the committee observed that “it is extremely important and desirable that the agitation of this subject be finally arrested, for the purpose of restoring tranquility to the public mind.” Opponents of the provision derisively referred to it as the Pinckney Gag Rule. Over the objections of Whig Representatives the House adopted the committee’s recommendations on May 26, 1836. The House later adopted several versions of the Gag Rule, which remained in effect until 1844.
Governor of Tennessee
Near the end of Andrew Jackson’s second term as President, the American economy began to shrink. Soon after Jackson’s successor, Martin Van Buren took office, Jackson’s financial policies kindled a full-blown financial disaster known as the Panic of 1837. Banks collapsed, businesses failed, wages dropped, and thousands of people lost their jobs. As the nation’s economy spiraled downward, critics blamed the Democratic Party. In Tennessee, the state party had already begun to unravel in 1835 when voters elected Whig Party candidate Newton Cannon to the governorship. After they re-elected him in 1837, Polk announced his plans to resign from the House in 1839 and return to Tennessee to challenge him. On August 1, 1839, Polk unseated Cannon in the gubernatorial election and he took office on October 14.
As hard times continued throughout the rest of the 1830s, Van Buren received much of the blame. Still, Polk continued to support the beleaguered President. Consequently, Whig candidate James C. Jones upset Polk in his bid for reelection in 1841. Two years later, Jones defeated Polk by an even larger margin.
Presidential Election of 1844
Out of political office for the first time in eighteen years, Polk turned his attention to his law practice and to managing his plantation in Mississippi as he awaited an opportunity to reenter the political arena. His chance came out of nowhere in 1844, at the highest level imaginable.
On April 6, 1841, Vice-president John Tyler took the presidential oath of office following the unexpected death of President William Henry Harrison. Although Tyler was nominally a member of the Whig Party, it soon became clear that nearly the only conviction the “Accidental President” shared with many Whigs was their opposition to Andrew Jackson and his followers. As a Southern slaveholder and states’ rights advocate, Tyler opposed many policies endorsed by other Whigs. Throughout his presidency, Tyler maintained a contentious relationship with Congress and his party. Outrage over his policies eventually prompted Whig leaders to expel the President from the party, opening the door for Kentucky Senator Henry Clay to receive the party’s presidential nomination in 1844.
On the Democratic side, former President Martin Van Buren prepared to make another run for the White House. Van Buren’s chances looked reasonably promising until April 1844 when he, like Clay, issued statements to two Washington newspapers opposing the annexation of Texas. Van Buren’s political blunder cost him the support of many Southern Democrats who viewed Texas annexation as an opportunity to extend slavery.
Despite his misstep, when the Democratic National Convention convened in Baltimore in May, Van Buren was the frontrunner to receive the presidential nomination. When the delegates cast their first vote to choose a candidate, Van Buren far outdistanced his closest competitor, Michigan Senator Lewis Cass, 146-83. Although Van Buren was clearly the favorite, he fell twenty-six votes short of the required two-thirds majority to secure the nomination. Six more ballots produced similar results. With the voting at an obvious impasse, a small group of party leaders searching for a compromise candidate tossed Polk’s name into the mix. A protégé of Andrew Jackson, Young Hickory was acceptable to Southerners because he favored Texas annexation. On the eighth ballot, Polk received forty-four votes. On the ninth ballot Van Buren and Cass released their delegates and Polk received 231 votes, securing the nomination. On the tenth ballot, the delegates made Polk’s nomination unanimous by casting 266 votes for America’s first dark-horse presidential nominee.
The general election in the fall was a close contest. Running on an expansionist platform, Polk defeated Clay in nearly every southern and western state. With Van Buren’s support, Polk also carried the two largest states, New York and Pennsylvania. When the results were tallied, Polk received 49.5% of the popular vote, compared to Clay’s 48.1%. In an election in which 2,703,659 free white men went to the polls, Polk’s margin of victory was a scant 39,400 votes. Polk’s official victory in the Electoral College was more decisive; he received 170 votes compared to Clay’s 105.
Many historians and political scientists consider Polk to be one of the more effective U.S. Presidents because he nearly delivered on each of his four primary campaign goals during his term in office. On the domestic front, in 1845 Polk’s Secretary of the Treasury Robert Walker spearheaded the enactment of the Walker Tariff, placating Southerners because it lowered excise taxes. The next year, Polk shepherded legislation through Congress establishing an independent treasury system for holding government funds.
In foreign affairs, Polk’s Secretary of State James Buchanan successfully negotiated the Oregon Treaty, which ended a long-standing dispute between Great Britain and the United States regarding the U.S.-Canadian border in the Pacific Northwest. Although Polk did not acquire all the territory he had promised during his campaign, he resolved the issue without resorting to warfare. He could not do the same in attaining his other foreign policy initiative, the acquisition of California.
War with Mexico
On March 1, 1845, just three days before lame-duck President John Tyler left office, he signed legislation authorizing the annexation of Texas, effective December 29, 1845. When Mexican officials protested, President Polk showed he was prepared to follow through with annexation by mobilizing approximately 3,500 soldiers, under the command of General Zachary Taylor, at Corpus Christi, Texas, in July 1845. Polk also ordered Commodore David Conner to assemble an American squadron in the Gulf of Mexico. As tensions between the two countries escalated, Polk attempted to fulfill his expansionist ambitions by offering to purchase the Mexican territories west of Texas, as well as the land under dispute on the Texas border, for 25 million dollars. When the Mexican government rejected his overtures, Polk ordered Taylor and his troops to cross the Nueces River in Texas.
In March 1846, Taylor advanced his forces into the Nueces Strip, the disputed area between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande. Under the direction of Captain Joseph K. Mansfield, Taylor’s soldiers built an earthwork named Fort Texas on the north bank of the Rio Grande, opposite the Mexican village of Matamoros. Mexican authorities responded by dispatching troops commanded by General Mariano Arista to Matamoros. On April 25, 1846, a cavalry detachment of two thousand Mexicans encountered a patrol of seventy U.S. soldiers north of the Rio Grande. The ensuing engagement, known as the Thornton Affair, resulted in the death of sixteen Americans. When President Polk learned of the event, he sent a message to Congress on May 11, proclaiming that “Mexico has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory and shed American blood upon American soil.” Two days later, on May 13, 1846, Congress approved a declaration of war against Mexico. Mexican officials reciprocated by declaring war against the United States on July 7.
The Mexican-American War erupted on several fronts and lasted until October 1847 when General Winfield Scott‘s “Army of Invasion” subjugated the Mexican Army after occupying Mexico City. For the rest of 1847, American forces occupied or controlled most of the country while Mexican officials struggled to organize a new national government. As the Mexicans put their house in order, American diplomat Nicholas P. Trist began negotiations to end the war. Trist and his Mexican counterparts reached an accord in January 1848. On February 2, 1848, representatives from both sides signed the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. The peace treaty established the Rio Grande as the southernmost border between Mexico and the United States. It also required Mexico to cede California, Arizona, New Mexico, and portions of Utah, Nevada, and Colorado to the United States, in return for a payment of 15 million dollars. The U.S. Senate ratified the peace treaty on March 10, 1848. Besides the 15 million dollars, the cost of fulfilling Polk’s pledge to acquire California was nearly 17,000 American casualties (13,000 dead and 4,000 wounded), plus an additional 25,000 Mexican lives, including possibly one thousand civilians.
As the presidential election of 1848 approached, Polk remained true to his pledge to serve only one term and chose not to run for re-election. Shortly before leaving office, Polk purchased the Nashville home of his former mentor Felix Grundy, which he renamed “Polk Place.” After leaving office on March 4, 1849, Polk embarked on a tour of the South, despite being in poor health. He returned to Nashville on April 2 in ill health, possibly having contracted cholera in New Orleans. He died at Polk Place on June 15, 1849, at age 53, just fifteen weeks after leaving office.
Polk initially was buried on the grounds at Polk Place. In 1891, his remains were joined by those of his wife, Sarah. On September 19, 1893, both bodies were re-interred on the grounds of the Tennessee State Capitol in downtown Nashville.
Significance of James K. Polk
James K. Polk was an important historical figure because he served as the 11th President of the United States (1845-1849) and was a key figure in the country’s expansion. Polk was a strong advocate for manifest destiny and several important territorial acquisitions marked his presidency, including the annexation of Texas and the negotiation of the Oregon Treaty with Great Britain, which established the 49th parallel as the boundary between the United States and Canada. Polk was also responsible for the start of the Mexican-American War, which led to the acquisition of a significant amount of territory in the West. He is remembered for his efforts to expand the country, strengthen the power of the presidency, and promote American economic growth.