All About History
Meet the forgotten eleventh president who shaped the United States into a continental giant — but hastened its fall into civil war
The life of James K Polk, the forgotten president who formed the US as we know it today
The United States of America, the song America the Beautiful says, runs “from sea to shining sea”, east to west from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. The country also runs from the 49th Parallel, much of which marks its northern border with Canada, to the Rio Grande, which forms its southern border with Mexico.
These boundaries were the creation of many ordinary Americans, especially the settlers who established themselves on Mexican land in Texas and British-claimed land in the Oregon Country in the Pacific Northwest. But the formation of the nation as the modern colossus bestriding two great oceans was the diplomatic and military feat of the country’s often overlooked eleventh president,
James Knox Polk.
It was he who successfully asserted American claims against Britain in the Oregon Country, securing the northwestern corner of the nation without firing a shot. He also sent an army to Mexico City and forced the Mexican Republic to surrender all of its territory north of the Rio Grande.
But Polk’s presidency was only a brief triumph. His inability to understand that slavery was a danger to the Union accelerated America’s path to the catastrophic Civil War in 1861.
In Pineville, North Carolina, Polk was born in a simple log cabin in 1795, the first child of Samuel and Jane Polk, who could trace their family origins to Presbyterian emigrants from Ireland. At the baptismal font, it apparently emerged that Samuel had doubts about Presbyterian theology so his firstborn son went unbaptised. Nevertheless, his mother, a strict Calvinist, imbued him with staunch religious principles of hard work, self-discipline and an unquestioning faith in predestination, the belief that God has already decided what will come to pass.
But it was Polk’s grandfather Ezekiel who ordained the future of the family’s lives. In 1803, when Polk was eight years old, Ezekiel, like a Biblical patriarch, led some of his family on a pilgrimage into the wilderness. They settled in the frontier country at Maury County, Tennessee, and three years later, Samuel and his family joined them. Polk was a sickly child and life was hard. In 1812, he underwent an operation for urinary stones — the anaesthetic was brandy — which may have left him sterile.
The Polk family soon dominated the political life of this new society in the woods. As Samuel’s business interests grew, he became a county judge. He also befriended another influential judge, Andrew Jackson, the future hero of the War of 1812
and president of the United States. After studying at the University of North Carolina, Samuel’s son began practicing law at Nashville, Tennessee, in 1820. Polk’s first brief was to defend his father against a charge of public brawling. Samuel allegedly paid a token $1 fine.
In 1822, Polk stood for the Tennessee House of Representatives as a Democrat and won by a huge margin. Jackson supported his political career, causing the two to spark an alliance that would endure for the rest of Jackson’s life. Polk played the ‘Young Hickory’ to Jackson’s gnarled ‘Old Hickory’. Months later, Polk also made another strategic alliance (possibly with Jackson’s encouragement) by marrying Sarah Childress, the accomplished but strictly religious daughter of one of Tennessee’s leading families.
A year later at the 1824 elections, Jackson won the popular vote but failed to get a clear majority from Electoral College. The House of Representatives instead chose John Quincy Adams as president but he had come second in both the popular vote and the Electoral College.
Jackson and his supporters alleged underhand dealings by Adams and his supporters. When
Polk came to Washington, DC, as a Tennessee Congressman in 1825, he took up Jackson’s cause, calling for the abolition of the Electoral College and echoing Jackson’s agrarian populist policies. These depicted the small farmer as the true American pioneer, and the urban, eastern establishment as a corrupt elite.
When Jackson won the 1828 election, Polk became one of his closest advisors. As Jackson’s voice in the House of Representatives, he rose quickly, learning how to manipulate the legislative machinery of committees and procedures as he went. In 1838, with a presidency in mind, he returned to Tennessee and won the governorship. But he was unable to master the Tennessee House.
The economy was still weak after the Panic of 1837 — a recession caused in large part by Jackson’s policies — and in 1840, Jackson’s presidential successor, Martin van Buren, lost the White House to the rival Whig party. The Tennessee legislature voted against Polk’s requests for expensive programmes of education and infrastructure, and his Jacksonian proposal to strengthen state banks against financial panics instead of giving additional powers to a national bank. In 1841, Polk lost the governorship. He stood once more in 1843, only to face failure once again.
Still, Polk had positioned himself to inherit the nomination as van Buren’s running mate in the 1844 elections. Polk was a diplomat in a Washington where political differences still led to duels, and where the issue of slavery was threatening to split the North and South. In a Jacksonian style, he also aligned himself with the issue that would force slavery to the top of the agenda by the end of the 1840s — the territorial expansion of the United States.
“The Polk family soon dominated the political life of this new society in the woods”
In 1836, the white settlers of Mexican-ruled Texas declared their independence. Jackson, then the president, had recognised the rebels but Mexican threats of war had prevented him from annexing the self-proclaimed Republic of Texas. Meanwhile, Britain, which had defeated the United States little over two decades earlier in the War of 1812, was courting Texas.
The Texans were slaveholders while the British, having recently eradicated slavery, used their navy to become patrons of abolition. If the United States allowed Texas to fall into British or Mexican hands, it would become an obstacle to expanding west. But if America absorbed Texas as a proslavery state, it would exacerbate tensions between the South and the North’s abolitionist majority. Tensions would also rise if Texas was absorbed without slavery, as it would become a haven for escaped slaves.
Polk, too, was a slave owner — he had inherited 20 slaves and a cotton plantation on his father’s death in 1827. The right to hold slaves was protected in the American Constitution but he underestimated slavery’s potential as an issue capable of dividing the Union. He believed that expanding the country was a more pressing affair and one that, if realised, could unite opinion around an expanded ideal of the nation.
The Whigs and Democrats were both divided over Texas. When the Whig nominee, Kentucky’s Henry Clay, declared that he was against annexing it, so did van Buren. Jackson, who favoured the plan, now pushed for Polk, presenting him as the only nominee capable of uniting the party and winning the presidency. Polk deployed his experience as a party politician, skilfully manoeuvring through nine ballots at the party convention of 1844, and took his chance.
“Who is James Polk?” became the Whigs’ election cry. He was the first ‘dark horse’ candidate but he only appeared to emerge from nowhere. In reality, he was actually an experienced administrator, materialising from within a party in crisis, as Abraham Lincoln would as the Civil War loomed. Yet while Lincoln would become the candidate of a party on the edge of civil war, Polk won the 1844 election as a unifier.
The American population was doubling in every generation and now equalled that of
Great Britain. This baby boom created a rapid momentum of industrial growth in the established states in the east and a constant flow of settlers to the west. The country now possessed the means and numbers to fulfil the dream of the Founding Fathers — a United States from the Atlantic to the Pacific. To Americans of the era it seemed History and God had predestined that the nation would become a global power.
“The American population was doubling in every generation”
The outgoing president, Andrew Tyler, tried to push a resolution for the annexation of Texas through the Senate with Polk’s help. Taking office as the eleventh president, and the youngest up to that point at the age of 49, Polk pledged to complete the annexation of Texas, to defend slavery as a constitutional right and to protect the claims of American settlers in the Oregon Country, which extended from the northernmost border of Mexico at the 42nd Parallel to the 54th.
Britain and the United States both claimed the territory — Britain through the expeditions of Captain Cook and George Vancouver, and America through the land explorations of Lewis and Clark as well as the voyages of Robert Gray. Neither country wanted a conflict. In 1818, they agreed to administrate the land together but the influx of settlers in the 1840s tipped the demographic balance towards an American majority and patriotism rose accordingly.
When Polk spoke of annexing the Oregon Country, the British threatened war. Polk, calculating that they were more interested in good trade relations, proposed dividing it, extending the Canadian-american border eastwards to the Pacific. Britain would get Vancouver Island but would concede the future state of Oregon.
Polk had called Britain’s bluff and he now called it again in Texas — but he didn’t read his adversaries’ intentions correctly. In December
1845, he signed a resolution annexing the land, then sent an envoy to Mexican president José de Herrera with an offer to buy New Mexico and California for $30 million. Polk expected de Herrera to sell but he refused.
While exploring the idea of sponsoring a coup in Mexico, Polk sent General Zachary Taylor and 3,500 troops to the Nueces Strip — an area on
the northern bank of the Rio Grande claimed by Texas and Mexico — in early 1846. He instructed his general to provoke the Mexican Army and by May, word had reached him that American soldiers had been killed and captured on the Strip. Polk accused the Mexicans of having “shed American blood on American soil”, even though Taylor had provoked the conflict. Congress voted for war.
Naturally, pushing the United States’ frontier forward meant pushing back Great Britain’s ambitions — the British claim to California dated to Sir Francis Drake’s landing at ‘New Albion’ during his circumnavigation of the globe. To preempt possible interference, Polk sent his troops to occupy Santa Fe, the capital of New Mexico, and Los Angeles, which allowed him to declare the seizure of California.
In September 1847, Mexico City fell to the United States and Polk imposed the terms of Mexico’s defeat via the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Texas was to become the 28th member of the Union and the Rio Grande its southern border.
Mexico also ceded a vast tract of land — known as California — in the west and its northern border touched the southern border of the American half of the Oregon Country. It included almost all of the future states of Arizona, Nevada and Utah, large parts of Wyoming and Colorado, and half of New Mexico. In return, America paid Mexico $15 million — less than half the amount that Polk had offered before the war — and agreed to settle claims amounting to $3.25 million by American citizens against the government of Mexico.
Texas entered the Union in 1845 as a slaveholding state. Soon after, Iowa entered as a
‘free’ (non-slavery) state in 1846. California, its population suddenly increased by the Gold Rush that began just a week before the annexation in 1848, entered the Union in 1850 as another ‘free’ state. Nevada became a free state just before the elections of 1864, its admission potentially hurried through because Lincoln wanted to ensure a Republican majority in Congress.
The expansion of the United States south and west exacerbated tensions over slavery — its already divided political parties disagreed over whether the “peculiar institution” should be extended to the new territories. Polk, once the master of political compromise, didn’t stay in office and attempt to reconcile the pro- and anti-slavery factions. He had secured the Democratic nomination in 1844 as a compromise candidate — but the compromise was that he wouldn’t run for a second term.
Yet there could be no lasting agreement on slavery. With Polk retiring from the presidency, the Democratic Party would soon split over its expansion into the newly won states. When the Democratic convention chose Lewis Cass, a strong supporter of spreading slavery, as its presidential nominee, Democrats from the northern states, who opposed expanding it, broke away.
Calling themselves the Free Soil Party, they nominated van Buren as their candidate — but this split the Democratic vote and allowed the Whigs’ nominee to move into the White House. The new president, sworn into office in March 1849, was none other than Zachary Taylor, the star of the Mexican-american War.
Despite his relative youth, Polk was exhausted after four years in the top job. He and his wife decided to leave Washington, DC, in 1849 to begin a planned tour of the south of the country that was meant to end at their new home in Nashville. Instead of a triumphal return, the tour would eventually turn into a funeral march.
The Polks kept to a busy schedule of festivities as they travelled down the East Coast. Never physically strong, Polk picked up a heavy cold as their tour turned west towards Alabama. Taking a riverboat destined for New Orleans, he ignored rumours of a cholera outbreak, despite several passengers dying of the infectious disease on their journey down the Mississippi River.
When the Polks arrived in New Orleans, Polk continued to ignore swirling rumours of cholera cases in the city and insisted on honouring his invitations and his public. He and Sarah then took another ship bound for Tennessee. At one point on the journey, he fell so ill that he had to disembark and spend several days in bed on dry land. While a doctor assured him that he definitely did not have cholera, Polk kept drinking water, even during the epidemics. As Sam Houston, his fellow Tennessee Democrat, joked, Polk was “a victim of the use of water as a beverage”.
The Polks quickly returned to Nashville and settled into their new home after a visit to Polk’s ageing mother. Polk’s health rallied and it seemed he was in the clear — but he suddenly declined again. He finally died at home on 15 June 1849, probably from cholera.
“The influx in settlers tipped the demographic balance”