Two presidents dominated the landscape of mid-19th century America—Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln. Sandwiched between them, however, was James K. Polk, a remarkable and highly effective president. Indeed, he was the only one of any stature to serve after Jackson and before Lincoln. Generally speaking, Polk is thought of as a war president; but he was more than merely a president who presided over war against a foreign country (Mexico). Polk emerged as the champion of “manifest destiny,” the belief that the United States enjoyed a special dispensation and even imperative to extend its boundaries westward, even all the way to the Pacific coast. To carry out such a mandate, providential or otherwise, Polk used war and diplomacy to push the borders across the continent to the southwest as well as the northwest. Convinced that such efforts would excite and unify the nation, he seemed unprepared for the divisions created by his bold territorial initiatives.
Born to Samuel and Jane Knox Polk on November 2, 1795 in Mecklenburg County, N.C., Polk was the first of their ten children. Polk’s father and grandfather (Ezekiel Polk) were successful economic and cultural leaders in the Mecklenburg community. Young Polk imbibed the political teachings of his elders and the religious instruction (strict Calvinism) of his mother. Eventually, in 1806 when James was ten years old, he moved with his family to Middle Tennessee, where his grandfather had settled a few years earlier. Very quickly the entrepreneurial Polks prospered economically and politically in their new environment.
James’ parents sent him to school at two different academies near his home in Columbia. He thrived as a student, so much so that by January 1816 he passed the entrance examinations at the University of North Carolina and earned admission as a sophomore. An active and intelligent student, Polk graduated in the spring of 1818 as the top student in the senior class. Returning to Tennessee, Polk opted to study law with Felix Grundy, one of the state’s most prominent lawyers. Although admitted to the bar in 1820, Polk demonstrated only modest interest in practicing law. Instead, he was already honing his talents and instincts as a political aspirant. He served briefly as chief clerk of the Tennessee senate, for example, before successfully campaigning for election to the state house of representatives in 1823.
Two years later Polk’s political ambitions stirred him to seek a seat in the U.S. Congress. Victorious in that quest, he launched a fourteen-year (1825-39) career in the House, during which he established his credentials as a devoted follower of Andrew Jackson and the Jacksonian movement—first as chair of the Ways and Means committee and then as Speaker (1835-39). The mutually advantageous relationship between Jackson and Polk had many political and personal ramifications.
But while Polk was busy with his impressive career as a congressman, a political revolt occurred in Tennessee. A strong anti-Jackson movement emerged quickly in the mid-1830s and captured the governor’s chair in 1835 and again in 1837. Moreover, in the presidential election of 1836 the anti-Jacksonians shocked their rivals by carrying the state for Hugh Lawson White, an avowed foe of Jackson and his party.
These disturbing reversals of political fortunes compelled Polk to return to Tennessee to rescue his party. Accordingly, he left the House and sought election to the governor’s office in 1839. In an amazing accomplishment Polk won that race and placed the Jacksonians back in power, albeit for only a short time. Although Polk campaigned for governor in 1841 and 1843, he failed both times. These twists and turns hardly seemed a suitable prologue to Polk’s presidential nomination in 1844. Yet remarkably enough, the national Democrats chose him as their nominee, largely because they needed a “westerner” who embraced territorial expansion.
Running against Henry Clay, the Whig candidate, Polk eked out a narrow victory in a highly competitive race in which “manifest destiny” was a key issue. Ironically, however, he failed to carry Tennessee. Nevertheless, Polk immediately launched the first phase of preparations for assuming the presidency, namely the selection of members of his Cabinet. Adhering to both a geographical and political representation scheme, Polk skillfully and shrewdly made appointments. But his choice of John Y. Mason of Virginia for Attorney General was based largely upon his friendship with Mason, who had been a college classmate. By the time of Polk’s inauguration in March 1845, he had assembled an impressive Cabinet.
The newly-elected president arrived in Washington in time to exert some unofficial influence over the continuing debates in Congress about Texas. Once Congress agreed to a joint resolution concerning annexation, it fell to Polk to implement its provisions. Such a challenge meshed conveniently with his ambitions about territorial expansion. Thus, the annexation of Texas became the first segment in the story of pushing the boundaries of America across the continent to the Pacific coast—the ultimate prize being the acquisition of California from Mexico.
Polk initially hoped to purchase California as well as New Mexico, the vast territory that lay between Texas and the coast. Such efforts were repulsed by Mexican leaders, however, and Polk then shifted his attention to the task of defining the southern and western boundary of Texas. But by the spring of 1846 open warfare erupted between U.S. and Mexican troops in the disputed area of Texas. The war against Mexico thus commenced, and Polk rallied the nation to the “manifest destiny” cause. Thanks to General Zachary Taylor and his soldiers, consecutive military victories marked the early months of armed conflict. Eventually in 1847, however, Polk determined to open a second front by sending General Winfield Scott to Mexico to capture that nation’s capital. Meanwhile, the United States had already exerted control over both California and New Mexico, thereby assuring that any final peace agreement would include tremendous territorial concessions. Eventually, Scott captured Mexico City in September and prolonged negotiations continued. The peace treaty finally agreed upon in February 1848 resolved the Texas boundary dispute, offered California and New Mexico to America, and required a payment of $15 million to Mexico. Thus, America’s destiny had been manifested.
While focused upon the acquisition of the entire Southwest, Polk also pushed to obtain the Pacific northwest from Great Britain. Rightly choosing to pursue diplomacy with Britain, instead of war, the president orchestrated the maneuvers and strategies that eventuated in a treaty that defined the northern boundary of the United States along the 49th parallel. Although the diplomatic negotiations did not always go smoothly, both sides were committed to a sensible solution to the joint occupation of Oregon. Shortly after war broke out on the Texas border, Polk received the treaty from Great Britain and the Senate ratified it in June 1846. Thereby the Polk administration acquired another major piece of real estate.
Concurrent with these and related developments, Polk set forth his domestic economic agenda: lower the tariff and establish the Independent Treasury. With the assistance of his Secretary of the Treasury, Robert J. Walker, the president and various congressional leaders fashioned a new tariff bill in 1846. When consideration of it hit rough spots in the road, Polk intervened directly and pressured members of Congress to acquiesce. And in July, they finally endorsed the bill the president sought. The other component of Polk’s program, the Independent Treasury, was designed to terminate the deposit of federal revenues in certain selected banks and instead to place all such money in special government vaults. After slowly considering the president’s proposal in the busy spring of 1846, Congress finally consented to its passage in June. Thus by mid-summer Polk had secured both pieces of his economic program.
Waging military war with Mexico, diplomatic war with Great Britain, and political war with Congress absorbed nearly all of the president’s energy and effort. But occasionally he attended to other interests—such as travel and recreation. One of his most enjoyable adventures was his trip to North Carolina in the summer of 1847. The University of North Carolina had conferred upon him an honorary doctorate in absentia in 1845, a gesture much appreciated by Polk. Subsequently he communicated with various persons about a possible visit to Chapel Hill but not until 1847 was he able to arrange such plans. Accompanied by Sarah Polk, John Y. Mason and a few others, the president traveled south to his native state. Judging by details in his diary, the 1818 graduate of the university had a wonderful time at Chapel Hill touring the campus, meeting old faculty and alumni friends, and participating in commencement ceremonies. For a man burdened by the demands and duties of the presidency, his experiences that summer were a delightful respite.
Upon retiring from the presidency in March 1849, Polk embarked upon his final trip which transported him from Washington to Nashville. Gratified to return home, he looked forward to pleasant days away from the travails of the presidency, but unfortunately he died on June 15—only three months after leaving the White House.
Considering all that Polk accomplished during his tenure as the nation’s chief executive, he merits a special place of greatness in the pantheon of presidents. Indeed, after his presidency there were no other presidents in the 19th century who measured up to his leadership—with the notable exception of Abraham Lincoln. The Mecklenburg County native had much to be proud of.
Paul H. Bergeron, The Presidency of James K. Polk (Lawrence, 1987); Norman A. Graebner, Empire on the Pacific: A Study in American Continental Expansion (New York, 1955); Sam W. Haynes, James K. Polk and the Expansionist Impulse (2d ed., New York, 2002); Thomas R. Hietala, Manifest Design: Anxious Aggrandizement in Late Jacksonian America (Ithaca, 1985); Howard Jones and Donald A. Rakestraw, Prologue to Manifest Destiny: Anglo-American Relations in the 1840s (Wilmington, 1997); Thomas M. Leonard, James K. Polk: A Clear and Unquestionable Destiny (Wilmington, 2001); Charles A. McCoy, Polk and the Presidency (Austin, 1960); Frederick Merk, The Monroe Doctrine and American Expansionism, 1843-1849 (New York, 1966); David M. Pletcher, The Diplomacy of Annexation: Texas, Oregon, and the Mexican War (Columbia, 1973); Donald A. Rakestraw, For Honor or Destiny: The Anglo-American Crisis over the Oregon Territory (New York, 1995); Charles G. Sellers, James K. Polk: Continentalist, 1843-1846 (Princeton, 1966), James K. Polk: Jacksonian, 1795-1843 (Princeton, 1957).
By Paul H. Bergeron, University of Tennessee
See Also:Related Categories: Political History
James K. Polk was born in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina on November 2, 1795. Above is a sketch of Polk's humble birthplace. Image courtesy of the North Carolina Office of Archives and History, Raleigh, NC.
President Polk (above) presided over war with Mexico (1846-1848) and strongly supported territorial expansion based on "manifest destiny." Image courtesy of the North Carolina Office of Archives and History, Raleigh, NC.
Early in his political career, Polk was a devoted follower of Andrew Jackson (above) and Jacksonian politics. Image courtesy of the North Carolina Office of Archives and History, Raleigh, NC.