All About History

American conqueror

Meet the forgotten eleventh president who shaped the United States into a continenta­l giant — but hastened its fall into civil war

- Written by Dominic Green

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.

Mexican Stand-off

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.

American Soil

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.

Westward Ho

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.

Troubled waters

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”

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 ??  ?? Polk, in the front row, third from the left, pictured with his cabinet in 1846. This was the first photo ever taken inside the White House
Polk, in the front row, third from the left, pictured with his cabinet in 1846. This was the first photo ever taken inside the White House
 ??  ?? Read all about it! War News From Mexico by Richard Caton Woodville, Sr, from 1848
Read all about it! War News From Mexico by Richard Caton Woodville, Sr, from 1848
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 ??  ?? Polk’s inaugurati­on featured in the Illustrate­d London News
Polk’s inaugurati­on featured in the Illustrate­d London News
 ??  ?? Polk secured the Western frontier for pioneers to expand into, as romanticis­ed in Emanuel Leutze’s 1861 Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way
Polk secured the Western frontier for pioneers to expand into, as romanticis­ed in Emanuel Leutze’s 1861 Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way
 ??  ?? Polk was the United States’ last strong president before the outbreak of the Civil War
Polk was the United States’ last strong president before the outbreak of the Civil War
 ??  ?? The American advance at the Battle of Churubusco, near Mexico City, in August 1847
The American advance at the Battle of Churubusco, near Mexico City, in August 1847
 ??  ?? The US Army takes control of Mexico City in 1847
The US Army takes control of Mexico City in 1847
 ??  ?? Campaign badges from Polk’s election run in 1844
Campaign badges from Polk’s election run in 1844

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