Polk, the eldest of 10 children, was born at a log farmhouse near the city of Charlotte, N.C., in 1795. When he was 11 years old, his family moved to the vicinity of Columbia, Tenn., where the father prospered in farming. Sickly during most of his childhood, the youth, though studious by nature, received little formal education.
In 1818 Polk graduated with honors from the University of North Carolina. He briefly returned to his home near Columbia and then read law in Nashville for a year; in 1820 he was admitted to the bar and began practicing in Columbia. Before long, he became prominent in the profession, and was elected to the lower house of the State legislature (1823-25). In 1824 he married Sarah Childress; they had no children. During this period, he initiated a lifetime political alliance and friendship with Gen. Andrew Jackson, a friend of his father.
During Polk's years in the U.S. House of Representatives (1825-39), including the speakership (1835-39), he came to lead Jackson's followers. During the years 1839-41, he served as Governor of Tennessee, but was afterward twice defeated for reelection. In 1840 he acquired Polk Place, in Nashville, his principal residence for the rest of his life.
In the Presidential election of 1844, Van Buren was the likely Democratic candidate, but his opposition to the annexation of Texas prevented him from mustering sufficient southern votes to win the nomination. A deadlock ensued and, Polk, a "dark horse" who had been mentioned as a Vice-Presidential possibility, was named.
Polk campaigned against Whig Henry Clay on a platform favoring the annexation of Texas, the acquisition of California, and the "reoccupation" of Oregon ("54°40' or Fight"). Alluding to Polk's relative obscurity, the Whigs asked: "Who is James K. Polk?" But expansionist sentiment in the country was strong enough to bring him victory, though the election was extremely close and he did not even win his home State.
At 49 years of age, Polk was the youngest Chief Executive to serve until his time. Stating in advance that he would not seek reelection, he followed a strenuous schedule designed to carry out his program in a single term. One of his immediate problems was the possibility of war with Mexico. She severed diplomatic relations over the U.S. offer of annexation to Texas, which Polk nevertheless completed later in the year.
Hoping to settle matters peaceably but also determined to acquire California, Polk dispatched diplomat John Slidell to Mexico City with orders to obtain acceptance of the Rio Grande as the Texas boundary and to offer to purchase all or part of the present Southwest, including California. Mexican nationalists were outraged, and Slidell was not received. Meantime, Polk had deployed an army under Gen. Zachary Taylor to the disputed area between the Nueces and the Rio Grande in Texas. In April 1846 Mexican troops killed part of a patrol and captured the rest of it.
Polk, asserting that U.S. blood had been shed on U.S. soil, won a congressional declaration of war despite fervent opposition from antislavery northerners. In the months that followed, the Army won spectacular victories, which culminated in the capture of Mexico City in September 1847. The year before, California had fallen in the Bear Flag Revolt, accomplished by rebellious American settlers and abetted by naval and overland military forces. In the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), Mexico surrendered the bulk of the present U.S. Southwest and recognized the Rio Grande as the boundary of Texas; the United States paid $15 million to Mexico and assumed the claims of American citizens against the Mexican Government.
In the Northwest, Polk did not resort to war, which neither the United States, involved in the Mexican War, nor Britain wanted. But he settled the problem of Oregon, which the two nations had jointly occupied since 1818. In 1846, well aware of the large British investment in northern Oregon, Polk agreed to a northern U.S. boundary line at the 49th parallel (except for the southern tip of Vancouver Island) instead of 54°40'. This dismayed northern expansionists, who resented his compromise on this issue in contrast to his apparent tenaciousness on behalf of southern slaveholders in the Southwest.
Thus, in a brief period, Polk completed the acquisition of the territory embracing the bulk of the present contiguous 48 States. But this spectacular success had its negative side. His actions helped divide the Democratic Party into anti- and pro-slavery wings; and the need to organize the new Territories precipitated quarrels in both parties over the extension of slavery. Furthermore, the military victories in the Mexican War strengthened the Whigs, for heroes Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott were rapidly becoming their leading prospects as Presidential candidates.
Polk's domestic accomplishments were dwarfed by the magnitude of his territorial achievements. Tariffs were reduced, the Treasury was reorganized by the establishment of branches in big cities, and the U.S. Naval Academy and Smithsonian Institution were established.
As Polk had promised, he quit the Presidency in 1849 after a single term. Hard work had taken its toll. Less than 3 months after he left office, he died at his home in Nashville.
Last Updated: 22-Jan-2004