James K. Polk (1795-1849)

Figure 1.--.

James K. Polk was the 11th president. He is often referred to as the first "dark horse" President or little-known candidate, to win the presidency when he unexpectedly defeated Henry Clay in the election of 1844. Polk was a committed Jacksonian and the last strong President until the Civil War. At 49 years of age, he was also the youngest president the United States had yet had. During his term of office Polk added more territory to the United States than any other president other than Jeffereson with the Louisana Purchase. The vast region stretching from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean acquired from Mexico. The immediate consequence, however, was a rise in sectionlism as the issue of the extension of slavery in the new territories inflamed passions in the North and South. Abolistionists condemned Polk, believeing that he desired to extend slavery. Many modern scholars, however, classify this lesser known president and often rank Polk as one of the 10 greatest American presidents. Others believe that Polk, a slave holder, was stronly motivated to srengthening slavery and the South.


James' father Samuel was a well respected North Carolina farmer and Justice of the Peace. His mother Jane Knox Polk also came from another respected local family with a Revolutionary War hero. They sired a family of 10 children, but not a great deal is known about their childhood experiences. They were raised in the strict Presbeterian traditions of their Scotts-Irish family.


Polk was born in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, near Pineville in 1795. The future president was the eldest of 10 children. Much of his childhood was spent in Pineville. Little is known, however, about Polk's childhood. The Polk family when James was about 11 in 1806 moved from North Carolina to Duck River, Tennessee. There his father Samuel became a successful frontier farmer.


James never developed the physical strength needed for farming. His parents therefore trained his mind and by all accounts was a very bright boy. Little is known about his early education. The Presbeterian Church often organized academies to provide basic education as there were so few public schools. It is likely that James as a young boy may have attended such an academy. His parents are known to have provided tutors for him and sent him to several preparatory schools. Polk in 1815 he entered the University of North Carolina. He applied himself diligently to his studies, graduating first in the class of 1818 with honors in mathematics and the classics from the University of North Carolina.


Polk was a thoughful man. He was also secretive and headstrong. He was not an especially warm man and had relatively few close personal associates.

Political Career

Polk as a young lawyer entered politics, serving in the Tennessee legislature. The family was a friend of Andrew Jackson, who became Polk's mentor. He agreed with Jackson that the power of money was a great danger to the Republic. Polk served in the House of Represenatives for 14 years. He supported Jackson in his war with the Second Bank of the United States. After entering the House of Reoresentatives, Polk became a chief lieutenant of Jackson in his Bank war. He served as Speaker (1835-39). It was here he realized the intensity of feeling on the slavery issue. Polk was a slave holder, but was not outspoken on the slavery issue. Here we do not know if this was because he lacked the conviction of other Southern politicans or more likely that he did not want to alienate northern Democrats. Polk reluctantly left Congress to become Governor of Tennessee which was hotly contested with the Whigs.

Presidential Election of 1844

Until circumstances raised Polk's ambitions, he was a leading contender for the Democratic nomination for Vice President in 1844. Both Martin Van Buren, who had been expected to win the Democratic nomination for President, and Henry Clay, who was to be the Whig nominee, tried to take the expansionist issue and indirectly slavery out of the campaign by declaring themselves opposed to the annexation of Texas. Polk, however, publicly asserted that Texas should be "re-annexed" and all of Oregon "re-occupied." The aging Jackson, correctly sensing that the people favored expansion, urged the choice of a candidate committed to the Nation's 'Manifest Destiny'. This view prevailed at the Democratic Convention, where Polk was nominated on the ninth ballot. Polk was an ardent Jacksonian and was known as "Little Hickory," a play on Jackson;s knickname "Old Hickory". "Who is James K. Polk?" Whigs jeered derisively to remind the voters that the Democrats had chosen such a little known candidate. The Whigs were sure that their nominee, the well known Congressman Henry Clay, would eeasily win. The Democrats replied Polk was the candidate who stood for expansion. He linked the Texas issue, popular in the South, with the Oregon question, attractive to the North. Polk also favored acquiring California. To Polk's surprise he eaked out a narrow victory. The Polk election was one of a string of Presidential defeats for the Whigs who were to be primarily a Congressiinal party. The only Whigs who managed to win the presudency were popular military heros (W.H. Harrison and Z. Taylor) with little commitment to the Whig program.


Polk is today not one of the best-known presidents. He was, however, by most measures a highly successful president. Like Jefferson, however, he played a major role in expanding the territory of the United States. In fact, only Jefferson added more territory to the Union than Polk. This alone makes Jeffereson and Polk two of the most important presidents. It was during Polk's presidency that most of the modern boundaries of the United States were determined. He also achieved important reforms of the tariff system and the curency.

Peacefull settlement with Britain

In his stand on Oregon, the President seemed to be risking war with Great Britain also. The 1844 Democratic platform claimed the entire Oregon area, from the California boundary northward to a latitude of 5440', the southern boundary of Russian Alaska. Extremists proclaimed "Fifty-four forty or fight," but Polk, aware of diplomatic realities, knew that no course short of war was likely to get all of Oregon. War with Britain at a time that America was moving toward war along its southern border, certainly would have been disatrous for the United States. Happily, neither Polk nor the British wanted a war. British envolvement at the time in the Crimean War undoubtedly was a factor. Polk offered to settle the border question by the simple expedient of extending the Canadian boundary, along the 49th parallel, from the Rockies to the Pacific. When the British minister declined, Polk reasserted the American claim to the entire area. Finally, the British settled for the 49th parallel, except for the southern tip of Vancouver Island. The treaty was signed in 1846.

War with Mexico

Congress, even before Polk took office, passed a joint resolution offering annexation to Texas. In so doing they bequeathed Polk the possibility of war with Mexico, which soon severed diplomatic relations. Acquisition of California proved far more difficult. Polk sent an envoy to offer Mexico up to $20 million plus settlement of damage claims owed to Americans, in return for California and the New Mexico country. Since no Mexican leader could cede half his country and still stay in power, Polk's entreties were dismissed out of hand and his envoy was not even received. To bring pressure, Polk sent Gen. Zachary Taylor to the disputed area on the Rio Grande. Mexican troops saw this as aggression, and they attacked Taylor's forces. Congress declared war and, despite much Northern opposition, supported the military operations. American forces won repeated victories and occupied Mexico City. Finally, in 1848, Mexico ceded New Mexico and California in return for $15 million and American assumption of the damage claims. Modern historians increasingly view the Mexican War as a war of conquest based on a less than definitive territorial claim. This is a legitimate assessment, but must be coinsidered along with the fact that Santa Ana and many Mexicans were spoiling for a fight themselves. The land acquired makes Jeffereson ans Polk two of the most important pre-Cicil War presidents. And the way he managed the War was more like a modern president than a 19th century president when Congress played a more important role. [Bornman]

Domestic affairs

Polk fully used the powers of the Presidency including the veto. Polk was a Southern in an era that began to question the South's role in the Republic. He attempted, however, to remain above sectionalism. He also achieved important reforms of the tariff system and the curency. At the time the tariff issue was much more important than is the case today.

Public life

Presuident Polk showed little imagination or humor in his public duties. He organized his life methodically, seeking workable answers to practical problems. He was probably the hardest working of all the presidents. He saw vacations and social functions as wasted time. During his 4 years as president Polk spent only 37 days away from his desk. He arose at daybreak and applied himself to state business usually until midnight. Before going to bed, he carefully recorded in a diary the details of the day's activities. Polk's popularity wained while in office. War fever and expansion westward made him very popular in his first 2 years. The Whig Congressional victory and the reaction to the casulties suffered in war had a sobering effect. Increasing criticism affect his popularity, especially as the question of the slavery issue abd the new territories rose in intensity.


Historians disagree on Polk's true objectives, in part because of his secretive nature. Some believe that he was a Jacksonian Cntinentalist, firmly committed American nationalist persuing the country's Manifest Destiny. Others charge that he was closect Southern sectionlist committed to enhancing the influence of the slave-holding South. His contention that Texas annexation had "nothing to do with slavery" seems extremely naive for a smart and successful politican. His true convictions, however, will probably never be known. We do not know ifPolk failed to appreciate the extent to which territorial expansion would intensify the national debate over slavery or if hecsaw the new territories as a way of adding slave state to the Union. Polk in his will expressed a desire that his slaves be freed after his and his wife's death, although not all historians accept this desire at face value. [Dusinberre]


The slvery issue in the 1840s was steadily growing in importance. Polk was a slave holder as were nearly all the Southern presidents. he and Taylor were thelast slave-hoilding presidents. Polk was not just a planter. He was deeply involved in the slavebuying than any other president. He attempted to concel his slave dealings and portrayed himself as a moderate on slavery to northern Democrats. Polk was not a getlke slave holder. Records show personal involvement in the separation of wives, husbands, and children as well as high rates of infant mortality. There were also many runaways. [Dusinberre] Polk opposed the Wilmont Proiviso which would have prohibited expanding slavey into the territory obtained from Mexico--the Mexican Cession. Whatever his motives, the debate over the expansion of slavery into the Mexican Cessison so inflamed passions that it eventually led to the Civil War which in the end destroyed slavery. Had the South not attempted to expand slavery, it would have been Constituionally impossible to have forced emancipation on the existing slave sttes.


President Polk added a vast area to the United States, but the acquisition of this territory precipitated a bitter quarrel between the North and South over expansion of slavery. The dispute was only delayed by Filmore and the Compromise of 1850. The delay, however, could have been critical in the preservation of the Union, giving 10 crtitical years for the North to deverlop the industrial base--critical in its future victory. It is interesting to note that, like Jackson, Polk viewed the American Reppublic as a shining example to the world (then dominated by kings, emperors, and tsars) of democratic rule. He believed it was the god-given responsibility of every American to protect and preserve the Union. This was a still untested issue at a time when most Americans viewed themselves as Virginians, New Yorkers, Marylanders, etc. Thus it is an irony of history that this Union man with his acquistion of so much new territory virtually made the Civil War unavoidable.


Polk's health was a continuing cincern. He had a very dangerous and painful operation for gall stones before his election. While in office Sarah was always concerned about her husband's health. She incouraged him to take a restful cairrage ride with her every afternoon. He wasn't very cooperative. Polk left office with his health undermined from hard work. He died in June 1849, only a few months after finishing his term of office and before compromie on the slavery issue was temporarily reached in 1850.

Sarah Childress Polk (1803-91)

Young Sarah growing up on a plantation near Murfreesboro, Tennessee, took silks, satins, and other expensive fabrics for granted. She was the elder daughter of Captain Joel and Elizabeth Childress, who believed, unlike most Americans of the day, in educating his daughters. He sent Sarah and her sister away to school, first to Nashville, then to the Moravians' "female academy" at Salem, North Carolina, one of the very few institutions of higher learning available to women in the early 19th century. So she acquired an education that made her especially fitted to assist a man with a political career.

James K. Polk was laying the foundation for that career when he met Sarah. He had begun his first year's service in the Tennessee legislature when they were married on New Year's Day, 1824; he was 28, she 20. The story goes that Andrew Jackson had encouraged their romance; he certainly made Polk a political protege, and as such Polk represented the same district in Congress for 14 sessions.

Sarah Polk had to resign herself to childlessness, in an age when motherhood gave a woman her only acknowledged career. Moreover, no lady would admit to a political role of her own, but Mrs. Polk found scope for her astute mind as well as her social skills. She accompanied her husband to Washington whenever she could, and they soon won a place in its most select social circles. Constantly--but privately--Sarah was helping him with his speeches, copying his correspondence, giving him advice. Much as she enjoyed politics, she would warn him against overwork. He would hand her a newspaper--"Sarah, here is something I wish you to read..."--and she would set to work as well.

Sarah was a devout Presbyterian who refused to attend horse races or the theater; but she always maintained social contacts of value to James. When he returned to Washington as President in 1845, she stepped to her high position with ease and evident pleasure. She appeared at the inaugural ball, but did not dance.

Contrasted with Julia Tyler's waltzes, her entertainments have become famous for sedateness and sobriety. Some later accounts say that the Polks never served wine, but in December 1845 a Congressman's wife recorded in her diary details of a four-hour dinner for forty at the White House--glasses for six different wines, from pink champagne to ruby port and sauterne, "formed a rainbow around each plate." Skilled in tactful conversation, Mrs. Polk enjoyed wide popularity as well as deep respect. Sarah did, however, draw the line at hard liquor.

Polk was not to enjoy the retirement he so looked forward to. They retired to their fine new home "Polk Place" in Nashville. But only 3 months latter the former president died. He was worn out by years of public service. Clad always in black, Sarah Polk lived on in that home for 42 years, guarding the memory of her husband and accepting honors paid to her as honors due to him. The house became a place of pilgrimage. Tennessee suceeded from the Union, but during the Civil War, Mrs. Polk held herself above sectional strife and received with dignity leaders of both Confederate and Union armies; all respected Polk Place as neutral ground. She presided over her house until her death in 1899 when she was 88. Buried beside her husband, she was mourned by a nation that had come to regard her as a precious link to the past.


The Polks had a deeply affectionate marriage, but produced no children. Polk and his wife did care for a nephew, Marshall, who became his ward. I know nothing of Marshsall's early life. He was expelled from both Georgetown University and th West Point Military Accademy. He became an alcoholic and died in prison.


Bornman, Walter R. Polk: The Man Who Transformed America and the Presidency, 448p.

Dusinberre, William. Slavemaster President: The Double Career of James Polk (Oxford University Press, 2003), 258p.

Randall, J.G.

Schlessinger, Arthur.


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Created: June 25, 1999
Last changed: 12:36 AM 11/8/2011