Settlement of the Oregon Territory with Britain and the acquisition of the Southwest through war with Mexico, the United States grew substantially in size.
James Knox Polk was no stranger to politics when he was elected United States President in 1844, yet he was not the favored candidate and is considered the first “dark horse” elected to the office as it would not be until the 9th ballot of the Democratic Party Convention that he was accepted as the party standard bearer.
Early Years of James Knox Polk
James Knox Polk was born in Pineville, Mecklenberg County, North Carolina. His family moved to Tennessee in his youth. He returned to study at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill graduating in 1818. He returned to Tennessee after graduation and continued his studies under the tutelage of a well known and respected Nashville lawyer, Felix Grundy.
With the support of Grundy he was appointed to and later elected the clerk to the Tennessee State Senate. He had during that period a short career with the local militia rising to the rank of colonel.
Polk’s elective political career really started to progress when he was elected to the Tenessee State Legislature as a Representative in 1823. This was followed by his election to the United States House of Representatives in 1825. After election to consecutive terms he became head of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee in 1833 and House Speaker in 1835.
In 1838, the young Democratic Party in Tennessee requested that Polk consider running for Governor. He was elected and left Congress to assume this new role.
Polk was defeated for the Governorship in 1841 and again in 1843.
Presidential Politics 1844
Polk had hoped to be nominated for Vice President at the Democratic Convention. However, the party was divided. Former President Martin Van Buren had achieved a majority of the votes but not the two-thirds count required. As a compromise after hours of balloting, Polk was nominated and to balance the ticket Senator George Mifflin Dallas of Pennsylvania was chosen as his running mate.
The popular vote was quite close with just over 38,000 votes separating Polk from his chief opponent Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky, the Whig candidate, out of over 2.6 million ballots cast.
Polk as President
Polk had four major objectives in his Presidency which he laid out at the beginning of what he stated would be only one term. They were:
- resolve the issue with Great Britain over the dispute of ownership of the Oregon Territory
- reform of the United States banking system with an independent Treasury
- acquire western territory particularly California
- reduce tariffs on goods
Polk managed to achieve these goals in the single term which he sought.
With the resolution of the Oregon Territory the United States acquired Oregon, Idaho, Washington, and portions of Montana and Wyoming. As a result of the Mexican American War, California, Nevada, Utah, most of Arizona, and parts of New Mexico, Wyoming, and Colorado were added as well.
In total, over 1,000,000 square miles had been added to the United States.
He would survive to see his successor Zachary Taylor inaugurated, but did not live much longer dying at age 53.