United States Presidents – James K. Polk

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James Knox Polk (November 2, 1795 – June 15, 1849) was the 11th President of the United States.

Dark horse candidate James K. Polk, the 11th President of the United States, championed the concept of Manifest Destiny by greatly expanding the size of the country.

James K. Polk is known as the first “dark horse” candidate to be elected as United States President. Polk is also known for his dedication to the concept of Manifest Destiny which is the idea that it was God’s will for the United States to continue its westward expansion. A close personal friend of Andrew Jackson and a staunch Jacksonian Democrat, James K. Polk was the second Tennessean to serve as President of the United States.

Early Years of U.S. President James K. Polk

James Knox Polk was born in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina in 1795 but moved to Nashville, Tennessee with his family in 1806. Polk was an excellent student and graduated with honors in 1818 from the University of North Carolina.

Returning to Tennessee, Polk practiced law and, in 1821, entered politics when he joined the Tennessee legislature. It was during this time that he met and married Sarah Childress and became friends with Andrew Jackson, who would serve as President from 1829-1837. Polk was elected in 1824 to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives where he served for 15 years and was Speaker of the House from 1835 to 1839. Polk left Congress to run for office as Governor of Tennessee and won election to a two-year term.

Dark Horse James K. Polk Becomes 11th President

In 1844, Democrat Martin Van Buren and Whig Henry Clay were expected to be the presidential nominees of their respective parties while James K. Polk was expected to be the Democrat’s candidate for Vice President. Van Buren and Clay attempted to remove Manifest Destiny as a campaign issue by declaring their opposition to the annexation of Texas. Polk, however, was outspoken about his views that Texas should be annexed and that Oregon and California should be acquired.

Knowing that the mood of the country was favorable toward expansion, Andrew Jackson encouraged the Democrats to nominate someone who advocated Manifest Destiny. His influence was successful in getting James K. Polk nominated on the ninth ballot as the presidential candidate. This is how Polk acquired the moniker of a “dark horse” candidate.

With Texas annexation being popular in the South and Oregon being popular with the North, Polk won the election in 1844 and became the 11th President of the United States.

James K. Polk’s Accomplishments as U.S. President

Once in office, Polk moved forward on expanding the western borders of the United States. Americans wanted the Oregon territory, which stretched from the northern boundary of California all the way up to the southern boundary of Russian Alaska. Polk was concerned that nothing short of war with Great Britain, which claimed that territory, could accomplish that. Eventually, President Polk offered to stretch the U.S.-Canadian border along the 49th parallel to the Pacific which the British agreed to and the treaty was signed in 1846.

Acquiring Texas and California was not as peaceful. Congress offered annexation to the Republic of Texas before Polk assumed office and, once Texas became a state in 1845, Mexico severed diplomatic relations with the U.S. Polk then sent a delegate to Mexico to offer $20 million for acquisition of California and New Mexico but the envoy was not received.

Sending forces under General Zachary Taylor to pressure Mexico was viewed as aggression and Mexican forces attacked the U.S. troops. Congress declared war in May, 1846 and American forces eventually occupied Mexico City. The war ended in 1848 when Mexico agreed to cede California and New Mexico to the U.S in exchange for a $15 million payment.

James K. Polk was successful in helping America realize its dream of acquiring vast amounts of land resulting in a country that stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans. The expansion of United States territory, however, set the stage for bitter conflict between the northern and southern states regarding the issue of slavery in the new acquisitions which would continue until the Civil War broke out.

James K. Polk After Presidential Years

James K. Polk returned to Tennessee after his term in office ended. His health suffered as a result of the intensity of his work as President and he died on June 15, 1849, at his home in Nashville. It was just three months after leaving office. Polk was buried in a tomb on the grounds of the Tennessee State Capitol.

Sources:

  1. James K. Polk Biography. James K Polk Home
  2. The Presidents – James K. Polk. White House.gov