James Knox Polk (November 2, 1795 – June 15, 1849) was an American politician who served as the 11th President of the United States (1845–1849). He previously was Speaker of the House of Representatives (1835–1839) and Governor of Tennessee (1839–1841). A protégé of Andrew Jackson, he was a member of the Democratic Party and an advocate of Jacksonian democracy. During Polk's presidency, the United States expanded significantly with the annexation of the Republic of Texas, the Oregon Territory, and the Mexican Cession following the American victory in the Mexican–American War.
After building a successful law practice in Tennessee, Polk was elected to the state legislature (1823) and then to the United States House of Representatives in 1825, and was a strong supporter of President Jackson's policies. He served as the Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1835 to 1839, the only president to have served in that capacity. Polk left Congress to run for governor; he won in 1839, but lost in 1841 and 1843. He was a dark horse candidate for the Democratic nomination for president in 1844; he entered his party’s convention as a potential nominee for vice president, but emerged as a compromise to head the ticket when no presidential candidate could secure the necessary two-thirds majority. In the general election, Polk defeated Henry Clay of the rival Whig Party.
Polk is considered by many the most effective president of the pre–Civil War era, having met during his four-year term every major domestic and foreign policy goal he had set. After a negotiation fraught with risk of war, he reached a settlement with the United Kingdom over the disputed Oregon Country, with the territory for the most part divided along the 49th parallel. Polk achieved a sweeping victory in the Mexican–American War, which resulted in the cession by Mexico of nearly all the American Southwest. He ensured a substantial reduction of tariff rates with the Walker tariff of 1846. The same year, he achieved his other major goal, re-establishment of the Independent Treasury system. True to his campaign pledge to serve only one term, Polk left office in 1849 and returned to Tennessee; he died in Nashville, most likely of cholera, three months after leaving the White House.
Scholars have ranked him favorably for his ability to promote and achieve the major items on his presidential agenda. However, he has also been criticized for leading the country into war against Mexico and for exacerbating sectional divides. A slaveholder for most of his adult life, he owned a plantation in Mississippi run with slaves, and bought them even as President. A major legacy of Polk's presidency is territorial expansion, as the United States reached the Pacific coast and became poised to be a world power.
|James K. Polk|
Daguerreotype of Polk attributed to Mathew Brady, 1849
|11th President of the United States|
March 4, 1845 – March 4, 1849
|Vice President||George M. Dallas|
|Preceded by||John Tyler|
|Succeeded by||Zachary Taylor|
|9th Governor of Tennessee|
October 14, 1839 – October 15, 1841
|Preceded by||Newton Cannon|
|Succeeded by||James C. Jones|
|13th Speaker of the United States House of Representatives|
December 7, 1835 – March 3, 1839
|Preceded by||John Bell|
|Succeeded by||Robert M. T. Hunter|
|Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Tennessee's 9th district
March 4, 1833 – March 3, 1839
|Preceded by||William Fitzgerald|
|Succeeded by||Harvey Magee Watterson|
|Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Tennessee's 6th district
March 4, 1825 – March 3, 1833
|Preceded by||John Alexander Cocke|
|Succeeded by||Balie Peyton|
|Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee|
|Preceded by||Gulian Verplanck|
|Succeeded by||Churchill Cambreleng|
|Born||James Knox Polk
November 2, 1795
Pineville, North Carolina, U.S.
|Died||June 15, 1849 (aged 53)
Nashville, Tennessee, U.S.
|Resting place||Tennessee State Capitol
|Spouse(s)||Sarah Childress (m. 1824)|
|Alma mater||University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill|
|Nickname(s)||Young Hickory, Napoleon of the Stump|
|Service/branch||Tennessee State Militia|
|Unit||5th Brigade Cavalry Regiment|
James Knox Polk, the first of ten children, was born on November 2, 1795 in a log cabin in what is now Pineville, North Carolina, in Mecklenburg County, to a family of farmers. His father Samuel Polk was a slaveholder, successful farmer, and surveyor of Scots-Irish descent. His mother Jane Polk named her firstborn after her father James Knox. The Polks had migrated to America in the late 1600s, settling initially on the Eastern Shore, then in south-central Pennsylvania and eventually moving to the Carolina hill country.
Like many early Scots-Irish settlers in the North Carolina, the Knox and Polk families were Presbyterian. While Polk's mother remained a devout Presbyterian, his father, whose own father Ezekiel Polk was a deist, rejected dogmatic Presbyterianism. When the parents took young James to a Presbyterian church to be baptized, Samuel refused to declare his belief in Christianity, and the minister refused to baptize the child. Despite this omission, according to James A. Rawley in his American National Biography article on Polk, "his mother stamped her rigid orthodoxy on James, instilling lifelong Calvinistic traits of self-discipline, hard work, piety, individualism, and a belief in the imperfection of human nature. She also shared her own deep interest in politics."
In 1803, Ezekiel Polk, the future president's grandfather, led four of his adult children and their families to the Duck River area in current Maury County, Middle Tennessee in search of new lands to settle. Once the trek had proven successful, Samuel Polk and his family followed in 1806. The Polk clan dominated politics in Maury County and in the new town of Columbia. Samuel became a county judge, and the guests at his home included Andrew Jackson, who had by then served as a judge and in Congress. Samuel Polk died in 1827; his widow lived until 1852, surviving her oldest son by three years.
The young James Polk suffered from frail health, a particular disadvantage in a frontier society. In 1812, Samuel Polk decided to take his oldest son to be seen by Dr. Philip Syng Physick, a prominent Philadelphia physician, for urinary stones. The journey was broken off by James's severe pain, and Dr. Ephraim McDowell of Danville, Kentucky operated to remove them. No anesthetic but brandy was available, and though the operation was successful, it may have left James sterile, as he had no children. James Polk recovered quickly, and became more robust. His father offered to bring James into one of his businesses, but the young man wanted an education, and enrolled at a Presbyterian academy in 1813. In July of that year, Polk became a member of the Zion Church near his home, and enrolled in its academy. A year later he entered Bradley Academy in Murfreesboro where Polk proved a promising student, and where he may have met his future wife, Sarah Childress.
In January 1816 Polk was admitted into the University of North Carolina as a second-semester sophomore. The Polk family had connections with the university, then a small school of about 80 students—Samuel Polk was its land agent in Tennessee and his cousin William Polk was a trustee. Polk's roommate was William Dunn Moseley, who would later become the first governor of Florida. While there Polk joined the Dialectic Society where he took part in debates, became its president and learned the art of oratory. Polk graduated with honors in May 1818.
After graduation, Polk returned to Tennessee, moving to Nashville to study law under renowned trial attorney Felix Grundy, who became his first mentor. On September 20, 1819 Polk, with Grundy's endorsement, was elected clerk of the Tennessee State Senate, which then sat in Murfreesboro, and to which Grundy had been elected. Polk was re-elected clerk in 1821 without opposition, and continued to serve until 1822. In June 1820, he was admitted to the Tennessee bar. His first case was to defend his father against a public fighting charge—he secured his release for a one-dollar fine. Polk opened an office in Maury County and was successful as a lawyer, in large part due to the many cases arising from the Panic of 1819, a severe depression. His law practice subsidized his political career.
By the time the legislature adjourned its session in September 1822, Polk was determined to be a candidate for the Tennessee House of Representatives. The election was in August 1823, almost a year away, allowing him ample time for campaigning, Already involved locally as a member of the Masons, he was commissioned in the Tennessee militia as a captain in the cavalry regiment of the 5th Brigade. He was later appointed a colonel on the staff of Governor William Carroll, and was afterwards often referred to as “Colonel”. Although many of the voters were members of the Polk clan, the young politician campaigned energetically. People liked Polk's oratory, earning him the nickname "Napoleon of the Stump." At the polls, where Polk provided alcoholic refreshments for his voters, he defeated incumbent William Yancey.
Polk courted Sarah Childress—they married on January 1, 1824 in Murfreesboro. Educated far better than most women of her time, especially in frontier Tennessee, Sarah Polk was from one of the state's most prominent families. During James's political career Sarah assisted her husband with his speeches, gave him advice on policy matters, and played an active role in his campaigns. Her grace, intelligence and charming conversation would compensate for her husband's often austere manner.
Polk's first mentor was Grundy, but in the legislature, Polk came increasingly to oppose him on such matters as land reform, and came to support the policies of Andrew Jackson, by then a military hero for his victory at the Battle of New Orleans (1815). Jackson was a family friend to both the Polks and the Childresses—there is evidence Sarah Polk and her siblings called him "Uncle Andrew"—and James Polk quickly came to support his presidential ambitions for 1824. When the Tennessee Legislature deadlocked on who to elect as U.S. senator in 1823 (until 1913, legislators, not the people, elected senators), Jackson's name was placed in nomination. Polk broke from his usual allies, casting his vote as a member of the state House of Representatives for the general in Jackson's victory. This boosted Jackson's presidential chances by giving him recent political experience[a] to match his military accomplishments. Thus began an alliance that would continue until Jackson's death early in Polk's presidency. Polk, though much of his political career, was known as "Young Hickory", based on the nickname for Jackson, "Old Hickory". Polk's political career was as dependent on Jackson as his nickname implied.
In the 1824 U.S. presidential election, Jackson got the most electoral votes (he also led in the popular vote) but as he did not receive a majority in the Electoral College, the election was thrown into the U.S. House of Representatives, which chose Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, who had received the second-most of each. Polk, like other Jackson supporters, believed that Speaker of the House Henry Clay had traded his support as fourth-place finisher (the House may only choose from among the top three) to Adams in a Corrupt Bargain in exchange for being the new Secretary of State. Polk had in August 1824 declared his candidacy for the following year's election to the House of Representatives from Tennessee's 6th congressional district. The district stretched from Maury County south to the Alabama line, and extensive electioneering was expected of the five candidates. Polk campaigned so vigorously that Sarah began to worry about his health. During the campaign, Polk's opponents said that at the age of 29 Polk was too young for the responsibility of a seat in the House, but he won the election with 3,669 votes out of 10,440 and took his seat in Congress later that year.
When Polk arrived in Washington, D.C. for Congress's regular session in December 1825, he roomed in Benjamin Burch's boarding house with other Tennessee representatives, including Sam Houston. Polk made his first major speech on March 13, 1826, in which he said that the Electoral College should be abolished and that the president should be elected by popular vote. Remaining bitter at the alleged Corrupt Bargain between Adams and Clay, Polk became a vocal critic of the administration, frequently voting against its policies. Sarah Polk remained at home in Columbia during her husband's first year in Congress, but accompanied him to Washington beginning in December 1826; she assisted him with his correspondence, and came to hear James's speeches.
Polk won re-election in 1827 and continued to oppose the Adams administration. He remained in close touch with Jackson, and when Jackson ran for president in 1828, Polk was a corresponding advisor on his campaign. Following Jackson's victory over Adams, Polk became one of the new President's most important and loyal supporters in the House. Working on Jackson's behalf, Polk successfully opposed federally-funded "internal improvements" such as a proposed Buffalo-to-New Orleans road, and he was pleased by Jackson's Maysville Road veto in May 1830, when Jackson blocked a bill to finance a road extension entirely within one state, Kentucky, deeming it unconstitutional. The veto message, which strongly complained about Congress's penchant for passing pork barrel projects, may have been written by Polk, though he denied this, stating that the message was entirely Jackson's.
Polk served as Jackson's most prominent House ally in the "Bank War" that developed over Jackson's opposition to the re-authorization of the Second Bank of the United States. The Second Bank, headed by Nicholas Biddle of Philadelphia, not only held federal dollars, but controlled much of the credit in the United States, as it could present currency issued by local banks for redemption in gold or silver. Some Westerners, including Jackson, opposed the Second Bank, deeming it a monopoly acting in the interest of Easterners. Polk, as a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, conducted investigations of the Second Bank, and though the committee voted for a bill to renew the bank's charter (scheduled to expire in 1836), Polk issued a strong minority report condemning the bank. The bill passed Congress in 1832, but Jackson vetoed it and Congress failed to override the veto. Jackson's action was highly controversial in Washington, but had considerable public support, and he won easy re-election in 1832.
During the Nullification Crisis of 1832–1833, Polk initially sympathized with John C. Calhoun's opposition to the Tariff of Abominations, but came over to Jackson's side as Calhoun moved towards advocating secession. Thereafter, Polk remained loyal to Jackson as the President sought to assert federal authority. Polk condemned secession and supported the Force Bill against South Carolina, which had claimed the authority to nullify federal tariffs. The matter was settled by Congress passing a compromise tariff.
In December 1833, after being elected to a fifth consecutive term, Polk, with Jackson's backing, became the chairman of Ways and Means, a powerful position in the House. In that position, Polk supported Jackson's withdrawal of federal funds from the Second Bank. Polk's committee issued a report questioning the Second Bank's finances, and another supporting Jackson's actions against it. In April 1834, the Ways and Means Committee reported a bill to regulate state deposit banks, which, when passed, enabled Jackson to deposit funds in pet banks, and Polk got legislation passed to allow the sale of the government's stock in the Second Bank.
In June 1834, Speaker of the House Andrew Stevenson resigned from Congress to become Minister to the United Kingdom. With Jackson's support, Polk ran for Speaker against fellow Tennessean John Bell, Calhoun disciple Richard Henry Wilde, and Joel Barlow Sutherland of Pennsylvania. After ten ballots, Bell, who had the support of many opponents of the administration, defeated Polk. Jackson called in political debts to try to get Polk elected Speaker at the start of the next Congress in December 1835, assuring his disciple in a letter he meant Polk to burn that New England would support Polk for Speaker. They were successful; Polk defeated Bell to take the Speakership.
According to Thomas M. Leonard in his book on Polk, "by 1836, while serving as Speaker of the House of Representatives, Polk approached the zenith of his congressional career. He was at the center of Jacksonian Democracy on the House floor, and, with the help of his wife, he ingratiated himself into Washington's social circles." Although the Polks remained childless, they were rearing the children of James' three deceased brothers. The prestige of the Speakership caused them to abandon life in a Washington boarding house for their own residence on Pennsylvania Avenue. In the 1836 presidential election, Vice President Martin Van Buren, Jackson's chosen successor, defeated multiple Whig candidates, including Tennessee Senator Hugh Lawson White. Increased Whig strength in Tennessee helped White carry his state, though Polk's home district went for Van Buren.
As Speaker, Polk worked for the policies of Jackson and later Van Buren. Polk appointed committees with Democratic chairs and majorities, including the New York radical C. C. Cambreleng as Chair of the Ways and Means Committee, although trying to maintain the Speaker's traditional nonpartisan appearance. The two major issues during Polk's speakership were slavery and, after the Panic of 1837, the economy. Polk took advantage of the "gag rule" to quiet the slavery debate within the House. Van Buren and Polk faced pressure to rescind the Specie Circular, Jackson's 1836 order that payment for government lands be in gold and silver. Some believed this had led to the crash by causing a lack of confidence in paper currency issued by banks. Despite such arguments, with support from Polk and his cabinet, Van Buren chose to back the Specie Circular. Polk and Van Buren attempted to establish an Independent Treasury system that would allow the government to oversee its own deposits (rather than using pet banks), but the bill was defeated in the House. It eventually passed in 1840.
Using his thorough grasp of the House's rules, Polk attempted to bring greater order to its proceedings. Unlike many of his peers, he never challenged anyone to a duel no matter how much they insulted his honor. The economic downturn cost the Democrats seats, so that when he faced re-election as Speaker in December 1837, he won by only 13 votes, and he foresaw defeat in 1839. Polk by then had presidential ambitions, but was well aware that no Speaker had ever become president (Polk remains the only one ever to have held both offices). After seven terms in the House, with two as Speaker, he announced that he would not seek re-election, choosing instead to run for Governor of Tennessee in the 1839 election.
In 1835, the Democrats had lost the governorship of Tennessee for the first time in their history, and Polk decided to return home to help the party. Polk returned to a Tennessee afire for White and Whiggism; the state had changed greatly in its political loyalties since the days of Jacksonian domination. Polk undertook his first statewide campaign, against the Whig incumbent, Newton Cannon, who sought a third two-year term as governor. The fact that Polk was the one called upon to "redeem" Tennessee from the Whigs tacitly acknowledged him as head of the state Democratic Party.
Polk campaigned on national issues, whereas Cannon stressed matters local to Tennessee. After being bested by Polk in the early debates, the governor retreated to Nashville, by then the state capital, alleging important official business. Polk made speeches across the state, seeking to become known more widely than in his native Middle Tennessee. When Cannon came back on the campaign trail in the final days, Polk pursued him, hastening the length of the state to be able to debate the governor again. On Election Day, August 1, 1839, Polk defeated Cannon, 54,102 to 51,396, as the Democrats recaptured the state legislature and won back three congressional seats in Tennessee.
Tennessee's governor had limited power—there was no gubernatorial veto, and the small size of the state government limited any political patronage. But Polk saw the office as a springboard for his national ambitions, seeking to be nominated as Van Buren's vice presidential running mate at the 1840 Democratic National Convention in Baltimore in May. Polk hoped to be the replacement if Vice President Richard Mentor Johnson was dumped from the ticket; Johnson was disliked by many Southern whites for fathering two daughters by a biracial mistress. Johnson was from Kentucky, so Polk's Tennessee residence would keep the New Yorker Van Buren's ticket balanced. The convention chose to endorse no one for vice president, stating that a choice would be made once the popular vote was cast. Three weeks after the convention, recognizing that Johnson was too popular in the party to be ousted, Polk withdrew his name. In any event, the Whig presidential candidate, General William Henry Harrison, conducted a rollicking campaign with the motto "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too", easily winning both the national vote and that in Tennessee. Polk campaigned in vain for Van Buren and was embarrassed by the outcome; Jackson, who had returned to his home, the Hermitage, near Nashville, was horrified at the prospect of a Whig administration. Harrison's death after a month in office in 1841 left the presidency to Vice President John Tyler, who soon broke with the Whigs.
Polk's three major programs during his governorship; regulating state banks, implementing state internal improvements, and improving education all failed to win the approval of the legislature. His only major success as governor was his politicking to secure the replacement of Tennessee's two Whig U.S. senators with Democrats. Polk's tenure was hindered by the continuing nationwide economic crisis that had followed the Panic of 1837 and which had caused Van Buren to lose the 1840 election.
Encouraged by the success of Harrison's campaign, the Whigs ran a freshman legislator from frontier Wilson County, James C. Jones against Polk in 1841. "Lean Jimmy" had proven one of their most effective gadflies against Polk, and his lighthearted tone at campaign debates was very effective against the serious Polk. The two debated the length of Tennessee, and Jones's support of distribution to the states of surplus federal revenues, and of a national bank, struck a chord with Tennessee voters. On election day in August 1841, Polk was defeated by 3,000 votes, the first time he had been beaten at the polls. Polk returned to Columbia and the practice of law, and prepared for a rematch against Jones in 1843, but though the new governor took less of a joking tone, it made little difference to the outcome, as Polk was beaten again, this time by 3,833 votes. In the wake of his second statewide defeat in three years, Polk faced an uncertain political future.
Despite his loss, Polk was determined to become the next Vice President of the United States, seeing it as a path to the presidency. Van Buren was the frontrunner for the 1844 Democratic nomination, and Polk engaged in a careful campaign to become his running mate. The former president faced opposition from Southerners who feared his views on slavery, while his handling of the Panic of 1837—he had refused to rescind the Specie Circular—aroused opposition from some in the West (today's Midwest) who believed his hard money policies had hurt their section of the country. Many Southerners supported the candidacy of former Vice President John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, Westerners rallied around Senator Lewis Cass of Michigan, and former Vice President Johnson also maintained a strong following among Democrats. Jackson assured Van Buren by letter that Polk in his campaigns for governor had "fought the battle well and fought it alone". Polk hoped to gain Van Buren's support, hinting in a letter that a Van Buren/Polk ticket could carry Tennessee, but found him unconvinced.
The biggest political issue in the United States at that time was territorial expansion. The Republic of Texas had successfully revolted against Mexico in 1836. With the republic largely populated by American emigres, those on both sides of the Sabine River border between the U.S. and Texas deemed it inevitable that Texas would join the United States, but this would anger Mexico, which considered Texas a breakaway province, and threatened war if the United States annexed it. Jackson, as president, had recognized Texas independence, but the initial momentum toward annexation had stalled. Britain was seeking to expand her influence in Texas: Britain had abolished slavery, and if Texas did the same, it would provide a western haven for runaways to match one in the North. A Texas not in the United States would also stand in the way of what was deemed America's Manifest Destiny to overspread the continent.
Clay was nominated for president by acclamation at the April 1844 Whig National Convention, with New Jersey's Theodore Frelinghuysen his running mate. A Kentucky slaveholder at a time when opponents of Texas annexation argued that it would give slavery more room to spread, Clay sought a nuanced position on the issue. Jackson, who strongly supported a Van Buren/Polk ticket, was delighted when Clay issued a letter for publication in the newspapers opposing Texas annexation, only to be devastated when he learned Van Buren had done the same thing. Van Buren did this because he feared losing his base of support in the Northeast, but his supporters in the old Southwest were stunned at his action. Polk, on the other hand, had written a pro-annexation letter that had been published four days before Van Buren's. Jackson wrote sadly to Van Buren that no candidate who opposed annexation could be elected, and decided Polk was the best person to head the ticket. Jackson met with Polk at the Hermitage on May 13, 1844 and explained to his visitor that only an expansionist from the South or Southwest could be elected—and, in his view, Polk had the best chance. Polk immediately wrote to instruct his lieutenants at the convention to work for his nomination as president.
Despite Jackson's quiet efforts on his behalf, Polk was skeptical that he could win. But due to the opposition to Van Buren by expansionists in the West and South, Polk's key lieutenant at the 1844 Democratic National Convention in Baltimore, Gideon Johnson Pillow, believed Polk could emerge as a compromise candidate. Publicly, however, Polk, who remained in Columbia during the convention, professed full support for Van Buren's candidacy, and was believed to be seeking the vice presidency. Polk was one of the few major Democrats to have declared for the annexation of Texas.
The convention opened on May 27, 1844. A crucial question was whether the nominee needed two-thirds of the delegate vote, as had been the case at previous Democratic conventions, or merely a majority. A vote for two-thirds would doom Van Buren's candidacy due to the opposition to him. With the support of the Southern states, the two-thirds rule was passed. Van Buren won a majority on the first presidential ballot, but failed to win the necessary two-thirds, and his support slowly faded on subsequent ballots. Cass, Johnson, Calhoun and James Buchanan had also received votes on the first ballot, and Cass took the lead on the fifth ballot. After seven ballots, the convention remained deadlocked: Cass could not attract the support necessary to reach two-thirds, and Van Buren's supporters were more and more discouraged about the former president's chances. Delegates were ready to consider a new candidate who might break the stalemate.
When the convention adjourned after the seventh ballot, Pillow, who had been waiting for an opportunity to press Polk's name, conferred with George Bancroft of Massachusetts, a politician and historian who was a longtime Polk correspondent, and who had planned to nominate Polk for vice president. Bancroft had supported Van Buren's candidacy, and was willing to see New York Senator Silas Wright head the ticket, but Wright would not consider taking a nomination that Van Buren wanted. Pillow and Bancroft decided if Polk were nominated for president, Wright might accept the second spot. Before the eighth ballot, former Attorney General Benjamin F. Butler, head of the New York delegation, read a pre-written letter from Van Buren to be used if he could not be nominated, withdrawing in Wright's favor. But Wright (who was in Washington) had also entrusted a pre-written letter to a supporter, in which he refused to be considered as a presidential candidate, and stated in the letter that he agreed with Van Buren's position on Texas. Had Wright's letter not been read he most likely would have been nominated, but without him, Butler began to rally Van Buren supporters for Polk as the best possible candidate, and Bancroft placed Polk's name before the convention. On the eighth ballot, Polk received only 44 votes to Cass's 114 and Van Buren's 104, but the deadlock showed signs of breaking. Butler formally withdrew Van Buren's name, many delegations declared for the Tennessean, and on the ninth ballot Polk received 233 ballots to Cass's 29, making him the Democratic nominee for president. The nomination was then made unanimous.
This left the question of the vice presidential candidate. Butler urged Wright's nomination, and the convention agreed to this, with only eight Georgia delegates dissenting. As the convention waited, word of Wright's nomination was sent to him in Washington via telegraph. Having by proxy declined an almost certain presidential nomination, Wright would not accept the second place. Senator Robert J. Walker of Mississippi, a close Polk ally, suggested former senator George M. Dallas of Pennsylvania. Dallas was acceptable enough to all factions, and gained the vice presidential nomination on the second ballot. The delegates passed a platform, and adjourned on May 30.
Although many contemporary politicians, including Pillow and Bancroft, claimed credit in the years to come for getting Polk the nomination, Walter R. Borneman felt that most credit was due to Jackson and Polk, "the two who had done the most were back in Tennessee, one an aging icon ensconced at the Hermitage and the other a shrewd lifelong politician waiting expectantly in Columbia". Whigs mocked Polk with the chant "Who is James K. Polk?", affecting never to have heard of him. Though he had experience as Speaker of the House and Governor of Tennessee, all previous presidents had served as Vice President, Secretary of State, or as a high-ranking general. Polk has been described as the first "dark horse" presidential nominee, but his nomination was less of a surprise than that of future nominees such as Franklin Pierce or Warren G. Harding. Despite his party's gibes, Clay recognized that Polk could unify the Democrats.
Rumors of Polk's nomination reached Nashville on June 4, much to Jackson's delight; they were substantiated later that day. The dispatches were sent on to Columbia, arriving that day, and letters and newspapers describing what had happened at Baltimore were in Polk's hands by June 6. He accepted his nomination by letter dated June 12, alleging that he had never sought the office, and stating his intent to serve only one term. Wright was embittered by what he called the "foul plot" against Van Buren, and demanded assurances that Polk had played no part; it was only after Polk professed that he had remained loyal to Van Buren that Wright supported his campaign. Following the custom of the time that presidential candidates avoid campaigning or appearing to seek the office, Polk remained in Columbia and made no speeches. He engaged in an extensive correspondence with Democratic Party officials as he managed his campaign. Polk made his views known in his acceptance letter and through responses to questions sent by citizens that were printed in newspapers, often by arrangement.
A potential pitfall for Polk's campaign was the issue of whether the tariff should be for revenue only, or with the intent to protect American industry. Polk finessed the tariff issue in a published letter. Recalling that he had long stated that tariffs should only be sufficient to finance government operations, he maintained that stance, but wrote that within that limitation, government could and should offer "fair and just protection" to American interests, including manufacturers. He refused to expand on this stance, acceptable to most Democrats, despite the Whigs pointing out that he had committed himself to nothing. In September, a delegation of Whigs from nearby Giles County came to Columbia, armed with specific questions on Polk's view on the current tariff, the Whig-passed Tariff of 1842, and with the stated intent of remaining in Columbia until they got answers. Polk took several days to respond, and chose to stand by his earlier statement, provoking an outcry in the Whig papers.
Another concern was the third-party candidacy of President Tyler, which might split the Democratic vote. Tyler had been nominated by a group of loyal officeholders. Under no illusions he could win, he believed he could rally states' rights supporters and populists to hold the balance of power in the election. Only Jackson had the stature to resolve the situation, which he did with two letters to friends in the Cabinet, that he knew would be shown to Tyler, stating that the President's supporters would be welcomed back into the Democratic fold. Jackson wrote that once Tyler withdrew, many Democrats would embrace him for his pro-annexation stance. The former president also used his influence to stop Francis Blair and his Globe newspaper, the semi-official organ of the Democratic Party, from attacking Tyler. These proved enough; Tyler withdrew from the race in August.
Party troubles were a third concern. Polk and Calhoun made peace when a former South Carolina congressman, Francis Pickens visited Tennessee and came to Columbia for two days and to the Hermitage for sessions with the increasingly ill Jackson. Calhoun wanted the Globe dissolved, and that Polk would act against the 1842 tariff and promote Texas annexation. Reassured on these points, Calhoun became a strong supporter.
Polk was aided regarding Texas when Clay, realizing his anti-annexation letter had cost him support, attempted in two subsequent letters to clarify his position. These angered both sides, which attacked Clay as insincere. Texas also threatened to divide the Democrats sectionally, but Polk managed to appease most Southern party leaders without antagonizing Northern ones. As the election drew closer, it became clear that most of the country favored the annexation of Texas, and some Southern Whig leaders supported Polk's campaign due to Clay's anti-annexation stance.
The campaign was vitriolic; both major party candidates were accused of various acts of malfeasance; Polk was accused of being both a duelist and a coward. The most damaging smear was the Roorback forgery; in late August an item appeared in an abolitionist newspaper, part of a book detailing fictional travels through the South of a Baron von Roorback, an imaginary German nobleman. The Ithaca Chronicle printed it without labeling it as fiction, and inserted a sentence alleging that the traveler had seen forty slaves sold by Polk and branded with his initials. The item was withdrawn by the Chronicle when challenged by the Democrats, but it was widely reprinted. Borneman suggested that the forgery backfired on Polk's opponents as it served to remind voters that Clay too was a slaveholder, John Eisenhower, in his journal article on the election, stated that the smear came too late to be effectively rebutted, and likely cost Polk Ohio. Southern newspapers, on the other hand, went far in defending Polk, with one Nashville newspaper alleging that his slaves preferred their bondage to freedom. Polk himself implied to newspaper correspondents that the only slaves he owned had either been inherited or had been purchased from relatives in financial distress; this paternalistic image was also painted by surrogates like Gideon Pillow. This was not true, though not known at the time; by then he had bought over thirty slaves, both from relatives and others, mainly for the purpose of procuring labor for his Mississippi cotton plantation.
There was no uniform election day in 1844; states voted between November 1 and 12. Polk won the election with 49.5% of the popular vote and 170 of the 275 electoral votes. Becoming the first president elected despite losing his state of residence (Tennessee), Polk also lost his birth state, North Carolina. However, he won Pennsylvania and New York, where Clay lost votes to the antislavery Liberty Party candidate James G. Birney, who got more votes in New York than Polk's margin of victory. Had Clay won New York, he would have been elected president.
Polk presided over a country whose population had doubled every twenty years since the American Revolution and which had reached demographic parity with Great Britain. Polk's tenure saw continued technological improvements, including the continued expansion of railroads and increased use of the telegraph. These improved communications and growing demographics increasingly made the United States into a strong military power, while also stoking expansionism.
Polk set four clearly defined goals for his administration:
While his domestic aims represented continuity with past Democratic policies, successful completion of Polk's foreign policy goals would represent the first major American territorial gains since the Adams–Onís Treaty of 1819.
After being informed of his victory on November 15, 1844, Polk turned his attention to forming a geographically-balanced Cabinet. He consulted Jackson and one or two other close allies, and decided that the large states of New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia should have representation in the six-member Cabinet, as should his home state of Tennessee. At a time when an incoming president might retain some or all of his predecessor's department heads, Polk wanted an entirely fresh Cabinet, but this proved delicate. Tyler's final Secretary of State was Calhoun, leader of a considerable faction of the Democratic Party, but when approached by emissaries, did not take offense and was willing to step down.
Polk did not want his Cabinet to contain presidential hopefuls, though he chose to nominate James Buchanan of Pennsylvania, whose ambition for the presidency was well-known, as Secretary of State. Tennessee's Cave Johnson, a close friend and ally of Polk, was nominated for the position of Postmaster General, with George Bancroft, the historian who had placed a crucial role in Polk's nomination as Navy Secretary. Polk's choices met with the approval of Andrew Jackson, whom Polk met with in January 1845 for the last time, as Jackson died that June.
Tyler's last Navy Secretary, John Y. Mason of Virginia, Polk's friend since college days and a longtime political ally, was not on the original list. As Cabinet choices were affected by factional politics and President Tyler's drive to resolve the Texas issue before leaving office, Polk at the last minute chose him as Attorney General. Polk also chose Mississippi Senator Walker as Secretary of the Treasury and New York's William Marcy as Secretary of War. All gained Senate confirmation after Polk took office. The members worked well together, and few replacements were necessary. One reshuffle was required in 1846 when Bancroft, who wanted a diplomatic posting, became U.S. minister to Britain.
As Polk put together his Cabinet, President Tyler sought to complete the annexation of Texas. While the Senate had defeated an earlier treaty that would annex the republic, Tyler urged Congress to pass a joint resolution, relying on its constitutional power to admit states. There were disagreements about the terms under which Texas would be admitted and Polk became involved in negotiations to break the impasse. With Polk's help, the annexation resolution narrowly cleared the Senate. Tyler was unsure whether to sign the resolution or leave it for Polk, and sent Calhoun to consult with the President-elect, who declined to give any advice. On his final evening in office, March 3, 1845, Tyler offered annexation to Texas according to the terms of the resolution.
Even before his inauguration, Polk wrote to Cave Johnson, "I intend to be myself President of the U.S." He would gain a reputation as a hard worker, spending ten to twelve hours at his desk, and rarely leaving Washington. Polk wrote, "No President who performs his duty faithfully and conscientiously can have any leisure. I prefer to supervise the whole operations of the government myself rather than intrust the public business to subordinates, and this makes my duties very great." When he took office on March 4, 1845, Polk, at 49, became the youngest president to that point. Polk's inauguration was the first inaugural ceremony to be reported by telegraph, and to be shown in a newspaper illustration (in The Illustrated London News).
In his inaugural address, delivered in a steady rain, Polk made clear his support for annexation by referring to the 28 states, thus including Texas. He proclaimed his fidelity to Jackson's principles by quoting his famous toast, "Every lover of his country must shudder at the thought of the possibility of its dissolution and will be ready to adopt the patriotic sentiment, 'Our Federal Union—it must be preserved.'" He stated his opposition to a national bank, and repeated that the tariff could include incidental protection. Although he did not mention slavery specifically, he alluded to it, decrying those who would tear down an institution protected by the Constitution.
Polk devoted the second half of his speech to foreign affairs, and specifically to expansion. He applauded the annexation of Texas, warning that Texas was no affair of any other nation, and certainly none of Mexico's. He spoke of the Oregon Country, and of the many who were migrating, pledging to safeguard America's rights there, and to protect the settlers.
In addition to appointing Cabinet officers to advise him, Polk made his sister's son, J. Knox Walker, his personal secretary, an especially important position because, other than his slaves, Polk had no staff at the White House. Walker, who lived at the White House with his growing family (two children were born to him while living there), performed his duties competently through his uncle's presidency. Other Polk relatives visited at the White House, some for extended periods.
|The Polk Cabinet|
|President||James K. Polk||1845–1849|
|Vice President||George M. Dallas||1845–1849|
|Secretary of State||James Buchanan||1845–1849|
|Secretary of Treasury||Robert J. Walker||1845–1849|
|Secretary of War||William L. Marcy||1845–1849|
|Attorney General||John Y. Mason||1845–1846|
|Postmaster General||Cave Johnson||1845–1849|
|Secretary of the Navy||George Bancroft||1845–1846|
|John Y. Mason||1846–1849|
Britain derived its claim to the Oregon Country from the voyages of Captains James Cook and George Vancouver, the Americans from the explorations of the Lewis and Clark expedition and from the discovery of the Columbia River by the American sea captain, Robert Gray. By treaty, Russia had waived any claim south of the southern border of Alaska, which it possessed until 1867, and Spain, which until the Mexican Revolution owned the Pacific Coast to the 42nd parallel, ceded any claims it might have north of that to the United States under the Adams–Onís Treaty of 1819.
Rather than war over the distant and low-population territory, the United States and Britain had negotiated. Since the signing of the Treaty of 1818, the Oregon Country had been under the joint occupation and control of the United Kingdom and the United States. Previous U.S. administrations had offered to divide the region along the 49th parallel, which was not acceptable to Britain, as it had commercial interests along the Columbia River. Britain's preferred partition was unacceptable to Polk, as it would have awarded the Puget Sound and all lands north of the Columbia River to Britain, and Britain was unwilling to accept the 49th parallel extended to the Pacific, as it meant the entire opening to Puget Sound would be in American hands, isolating its settlements along the Fraser River. Edward Everett, President Tyler's ambassador to Great Britain, had informally proposed dividing the territory at the 49th parallel with the strategic Vancouver Island granted to the British, thus allowing an opening to the Pacific, but when the new British minister in Washington, Richard Pakenham arrived in 1844 prepared to follow up, he found that many Americans desired the entire territory. Oregon had not been a major issue in the 1844 election, but the heavy influx of settlers, mostly American, to the Oregon Country in 1845, and the rising spirit of expansionism in the United States as Texas and Oregon seized the public's eye, made a treaty with Britain more urgent. Many Democrats believed that the United States should span from coast to coast, a philosophy described as Manifest Destiny.
Though both sides sought an acceptable compromise, each also saw the territory as an important geopolitical asset that would play a large part in determining the dominant power in North America. In his inaugural address, Polk announced that he viewed the American claim to the land as "clear and unquestionable", provoking threats of war from British leaders should Polk attempt to take control of the entire territory. Polk had refrained in his address from asserting a claim to the entire territory, which extended north to 54 degrees, 40 minutes north latitude, although the Democratic Party platform called for such a claim. Despite Polk's hawkish rhetoric, he viewed war with the British as unwise, and Polk and Buchanan opened up negotiations with the British. Like his predecessors, Polk again proposed a division along the 49th parallel, which was immediately rejected by Pakenham. Secretary of State Buchanan was wary of a two-front war with Mexico and Britain, but Polk was willing to risk war with both countries in pursuit of a favorable settlement. In his annual message to Congress in December 1845, Polk requested approval of giving Britain a one-year notice (as required in the Treaty of 1818) of his intention to terminate the joint occupancy of Oregon. In that message, he quoted from the Monroe Doctrine to denote America's intention of keeping European powers out, the first significant use of it since its origin in 1823. After much debate, Congress eventually passed the resolution in April 1846, attaching its hope that the dispute would be settled amicably.
When the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Aberdeen, learned of the proposal rejected by Pakenham, Aberdeen asked the United States to re-open negotiations, but Polk was unwilling unless a proposal was made by the British. With Britain moving towards free trade with the repeal of the Corn Laws, good trade relations with the United States were more important to Aberdeen than a distant territory. In February 1846, Polk allowed Buchanan to inform Louis McLane, the American ambassador to Britain, that Polk's administration would look favorably on a British proposal based around a division at the 49th parallel. In June 1846, Pakenham presented an offer to the Polk administration, calling for a boundary line at the 49th parallel, with the exception that Britain would retain all of Vancouver Island, and there would be limited navigation rights for British subjects on the Columbia River until the expiration of the charter of the Hudson's Bay Company in 1859. Polk and most of his Cabinet were prepared to accept the proposal, but Buchanan, in a reversal, urged that the United States seek control of all of the Oregon Territory. Polk deemed Buchanan's about-face linked to his presidential ambitions.
After winning the reluctant approval of Buchanan, and choosing to have the Senate weigh in (favorably) on the draft treaty, Polk submitted the full treaty to the Senate for ratification. The Senate ratified the Oregon Treaty in a 41–14 vote, with opposition from diehards who sought the full territory. Polk's willingness to risk war with Britain had frightened many, but his tough negotiation tactics may have gained the United States concessions from the British (particularly regarding the Columbia River) that a more conciliatory president might not have won.
The annexation resolution gave the president the choice of asking Texas to approve annexation, or reopening negotiations; Tyler immediately sent a messenger to the U.S. representative in Texas, Andrew Jackson Donelson, choosing the former option. Thus, Polk's first major decision in office was whether to recall Tyler's courier to Texas.
Though it was within Polk's power to recall the messenger, he chose to allow him to continue, with the hope that Texas would accept the offer. He also sent Congressman Archibald Yell of Arkansas as his personal emissary, taking his private assurance that the United States would defend Texas, and would fix its southern border at the Rio Grande, rather than at the Nueces River, as claimed by Mexico. Polk retained Donelson in his post, and the diplomat sought to convince Texas' leaders to accept annexation under the terms proposed by the Tyler administration. Though public sentiment in Texas favored annexation, some leaders, including President Anson Jones, hoped negotiation would bring better terms. Britain had offered to work a deal whereby Texas would gain Mexican recognition in exchange for a pledge never to annex itself to another country, but after consideration, the influential former president, Sam Houston, rejected it, as did the Texas Congress.
In July 1845, a convention ratified annexation, and thereafter voters approved it. In December 1845, Polk signed a resolution annexing Texas, and it became the 28th state. Mexico had broken diplomatic relations with the United States on passage of the joint resolution in March 1845; annexation increased tensions with Mexico, which had never recognized Texan independence.
Perhaps the most important event of Polk's presidency was the Mexican-American War. Following the Texan ratification of annexation in 1845, both Mexicans and Americans saw conflict as a likely possibility. Polk began preparations for a potential war with Mexico over Texas, sending an army led by General Zachary Taylor into Texas. Taylor and Commodore David Conner of the U.S. Navy, commanding American ships off the Mexican coast, were both ordered to avoid provoking a war, while preparing for conflict, and to respond to any Mexican aggression. Although Polk had the military prepare for war, he did not believe it would come to that; he thought Mexico would give in under duress.
Polk hoped that a show of force by the U.S. military under Taylor and Conner could avert war and lead to negotiations with the Mexican government. In late 1845, Polk sent diplomat John Slidell to Mexico to purchase New Mexico and California for $20–40 million, as well as securing Mexico's agreement to a Rio Grande border. Slidell arrived in Mexico City in December 1845. Mexican President José Joaquín de Herrera was unwilling to receive him because of the hostility of the public towards the United States. Slidell's ambassadorial credentials were refused by a Mexican council of government, and Herrara soon thereafter was deposed by a military coup led by General Mariano Paredes, a hard-liner who pledged to take back Texas from the United States. Dispatches from Slidell and from the U.S. consul in Mexico City, John Black, made clear their views that U.S. aims for territorial expansion could not be accomplished without war.
Taylor's instructions were to repel any incursion by Mexico north of the Rio Grande, but initially, his army did not advance further than Corpus Christi, at the mouth of the Nueces. On January 13, 1846, Polk ordered Taylor to proceed to the Rio Grande, though it took him time to prepare for the march. Polk was convinced that sending Taylor to the Nueces Strip would prompt war; even if it did not, he was prepared to have Congress declare it. As he waited, Polk considered supporting a potential coup led by the exiled Mexican General Antonio López de Santa Anna with the hope that Santa Anna would sell parts of California.
Slidell returned to Washington in May 1846, and gave his opinion that negotiations with the Mexican government were unlikely to be successful. Polk regarded the treatment of his diplomat as an insult and an "ample cause of war", and he prepared to ask Congress for a declaration of war. Meanwhile, in late March, General Taylor had reached the Rio Grande, and his army camped across the river from Matamoros, Tamaulipas. In April, after Mexican general Pedro de Ampudia demanded that Taylor return to the Nueces River, Taylor began a blockade of Matamoros. A skirmish on the northern side of the Rio Grande on April 25 ended in the death or capture of dozens of American soldiers, and became known as the Thornton Affair. Word did not reach Washington until May 9, and Polk immediately convened the Cabinet and obtained their approval of his plan to send a war message to Congress on the ground that Mexico had, as Polk put it in his message, "shed American blood on the American soil". Polk's message was crafted to present the war as a just and necessary defense of the country against a neighbor that had long troubled the United States.
The House overwhelmingly approved a resolution declaring war and authorizing the president to accept 50,000 volunteers into the military. Some of those voting in favor were unconvinced that the U.S. had just cause to go to war, but feared to be deemed unpatriotic. In the Senate, war opponents led by Calhoun also questioned Polk's version of events. Nonetheless, the House resolution passed the Senate in a 40–2 vote, with Calhoun abstaining, marking the beginning of the Mexican-American War.
After the initial skirmishes, Taylor and much of his army marched away from the river to secure the supply line, leaving a makeshift base, Fort Texas. On the way back to the Rio Grande, Mexican forces under General Mariano Arista attempted to block Taylor's way as other troops laid siege to Fort Texas, forcing the American general to the attack if he hoped to relieve the fort. In the Battle of Palo Alto, the first major engagement of the war, Taylor's troops forced Arista's from the field, suffering only four dead to hundreds for the Mexicans. The next day, Taylor led the army to victory in the Battle of Resaca de la Palma, putting the Mexican Army to rout. The early successes boosted support for the war, which despite the lopsided votes in Congress had deeply divided the nation. Many Northern Whigs opposed the war, as did others; they felt Polk had used patriotism to manipulate the nation into fighting a war the goal of which was to give slavery room to expand.
Polk offered Major General Winfield Scott, the position of top commander in the war, which the general accepted. Polk and Scott already knew and disliked each other: the President made the appointment despite the fact that Scott was a committed Whig who had sought his party's presidential nomination in 1840. Polk came to believe that Scott was too slow in getting himself and his army away from Washington and to the Rio Grande, and was outraged to learn Scott was using his influence in Congress to defeat the administration's plan to expand the number of generals. The news of Taylor's victory at Resaca de la Palma arrived then, and Polk decided to have Taylor take command in the field, with Scott to remain in Washington. Polk also ordered Commodore Conner to allow Santa Anna to return to Mexico from his exile in Havana, and sent an army expedition led by Stephen W. Kearny towards Santa Fe.
In 1845, Polk, fearful of French or British intervention, had sent Lieutenant Archibald H. Gillespie to California with orders to foment a pro-American rebellion that could be used to justify annexation of the territory. After meeting with Gillespie, Army captain John C. Frémont led settlers in northern California to overthrow the Mexican garrison in Sonoma in what became known as the Bear Flag Revolt. In August 1846, American forces under Kearny captured Santa Fe, capital of the province of New Mexico, without firing a shot. Almost simultaneously, Commodore Robert F. Stockton landed in Los Angeles and proclaimed the capture of California. After American forces put down a revolt, the United States held effective control of New Mexico and California. Nevertheless, the Western theater of the war would prove to be a political headache for Polk, as a dispute between Frémont and Kearny led to a break between Polk and the powerful Missouri senator (and father-in-law of Frémont), Thomas Hart Benton.
The initial public euphoria over the victories at the start of the war slowly dissipated. In August 1846, Polk asked Congress to appropriate $2 million as a down payment for the potential purchase of Mexican lands. Polk's request ignited opposition, as he had never before made public his desire to annex parts of Mexico (aside from lands claimed by Texas). It was unclear whether such newly acquired lands would be slave or free, and there was angry sectional debate. A freshman Democratic Congressman, David Wilmot of Pennsylvania, previously a firm supporter of Polk's administration, offered an amendment to the bill—the "Wilmot Proviso"—that would ban slavery in any land acquired using the money. The appropriation bill, with the Wilmot Proviso attached, passed the House, but died in the Senate. This discord cost Polk's party, as Democrats lost control of the House in the 1846 elections. In early 1847, though, Polk was successful in passing a bill raising further regiments, and he also finally won approval for the appropriation.
In July 1846, American envoy Alexander Slidell Mackenzie had met with Santa Anna, offering terms by which the US would pay to acquire San Francisco Bay and other parts of Alta California. Santa Anna seemed receptive, but after returning to Mexico, taking control of the government, he stated that he would fight against the Americans, and placed himself at the head of the army. This caused Polk to harden his position on Mexico, and he ordered an American landing at Veracruz, the most important Mexican port on the Gulf of Mexico. From there, troops were to march to Mexico City, which it was hoped would end the war. Continuing to advance in northeast Mexico, Taylor defeated a Mexican army led by Ampudia in the September 1846 Battle of Monterrey, but allowed Ampudia's forces to withdraw from the town, much to Polk's consternation. Polk believed Taylor had not aggressively pursued the enemy, and reluctantly offered command of the Veracruz expedition to Scott.
In March 1847, Polk learned that Taylor had continued to march south, capturing the northern Mexican town of Saltillo. Continuing beyond Saltillo, Taylor's army decimated a larger Mexican force, led by Santa Anna, in the Battle of Buena Vista. Mexican casualties were five times American, and the victory made Taylor even more of a military hero in the public's eyes, though Polk preferred to credit the bravery of the soldiers rather than the Whig general. In March 1847, Scott landed in Veracruz, and quickly won control of the city. With the capture of Veracruz, Polk dispatched Nicholas Trist, Buchanan's chief clerk, to accompany Scott's army and negotiate a peace treaty with Mexican leaders. Trist was instructed to seek the cession of Alta California, New Mexico, and Baja California, recognition of the Rio Grande as the southern border of Texas, and American access across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Trist was authorized to make a payment of up to $30 million in exchange for these concessions.
In August 1847, as he advanced towards Mexico City, Scott defeated Santa Anna at the Battle of Contreras and the Battle of Churubusco. With the Americans at the gates of Mexico City. Trist negotiated with commissioners, but the Mexicans were willing to give up little. Scott prepared to take Mexico City, which he did in mid-September. In the United States, a heated political debate emerged regarding how much of Mexico the United States should seek to annex, with Whigs such as Henry Clay arguing that the United States should only seek to settle the Texas border question, and some expansionists arguing for the annexation of all of Mexico. War opponents were also active; Whig Congressman Abraham Lincoln of Illinois introduced the "exact spot" resolutions, calling on Polk to state exactly where American blood had been shed on American soil to start the war, but the House refused to consider them.
Frustrated by a lack of progress in negotiations, Polk ordered Trist to return to Washington, but the diplomat, when the notice of recall arrived in mid-November 1847, decided to remain, writing a lengthy letter to Polk the following month to justify his decision. Polk considered having Butler, designated as Scott's replacement, forcibly remove him from Mexico City. Though outraged by Trist's decision, Polk decided to allow him some time to negotiate a treaty.
Throughout January 1848, Trist regularly met with officials in Mexico City, though at the request of the Mexicans, the treaty signing took place in Guadalupe Hidalgo, a small town near Mexico City. Trist was willing to allow Mexico to keep Baja California, as his instructions allowed, but successfully haggled for the inclusion of the important harbor of San Diego in a cession of Alta California. Provisions included the Rio Grande border and a $15 million payment to Mexico. On February 2, 1848, Trist and the Mexican delegation signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Polk received the document on February 19, and, after the Cabinet met on the 20th, decided he had no choice but to accept it. If he turned it down, with the House by then controlled by the Whigs, there was no assurance Congress would vote funding to continue the war. Both Buchanan and Walker dissented, wanting more land from Mexico, a position with which the President was sympathetic, though he considered Buchanan's view motivated by his ambition.
Some senators opposed the treaty because they wanted to take no Mexican territory; others hesitated because of the irregular nature of Trist's negotiations. Polk waited in suspense for two weeks as the Senate considered it, sometimes hearing that it would likely be defeated, and that Buchanan and Walker were working against it. He was relieved when the two Cabinet officers lobbied on behalf of the treaty. On March 10, the Senate ratified the treaty in a 38–14 vote, on a vote that cut across partisan and geographic lines. The Senate made some modifications to the treaty before ratification, and Polk worried that the Mexican government would reject the modifications. On June 7, Polk learned that Mexico had ratified the treaty. Polk declared the treaty in effect as of July 4, 1848, thus ending the war. With the acquisition of California, Polk accomplished all four of his major presidential goals. With the exception of the territory acquired by the 1853 Gadsden Purchase, the territorial acquisitions under Polk established the modern borders of the Contiguous United States.
Polk had been anxious to establish a territorial government for Oregon once the treaty was effective in 1846, but the matter became embroiled in the arguments over slavery, though few thought Oregon suitable for that institution. A bill to establish an Oregon territorial government passed the House after being amended to bar slavery; the bill died in the Senate when opponents ran out the clock on the congressional session. A resurrected bill, still barring slavery, again passed the House in January 1847 but it was not considered by the Senate before Congress adjourned in March. By the time Congress met again in December, California and New Mexico were in U.S. hands, and Polk in his annual message urged the establishment of territorial governments in all three. The Missouri Compromise had settled the issue of the geographic reach of slavery within the Louisiana Purchase territories by prohibiting slavery in states north of 36°30′ latitude, and Polk sought to extend this line into the newly acquired territory. If extended to the Pacific, this would have made slavery illegal in San Francisco, but allowed it in Monterey and Los Angeles. A plan to accomplish the extension was defeated in the House by a bipartisan alliance of Northerners. As the last congressional session before the 1848 election came to a close, Polk signed the lone territorial bill passed by Congress, which established the Territory of Oregon and prohibited slavery in it.
When Congress reconvened in December 1848, Polk asked it in his annual message to establish territorial governments in California and New Mexico, a task made especially urgent by the onset of the California Gold Rush. However, the divisive issue of slavery blocked any such legislation, though congressional action continued until the final hours of Polk's term. When the bill was amended to have the laws of Mexico apply to the southwest territories until Congress changed them (thus effectively banning slavery), Polk made it clear that he would veto it, considering it the Wilmot Proviso in another guise. It was not until the Compromise of 1850 that the matter of the territories was resolved.
Polk's ambassador to the Republic of New Granada, Benjamin Alden Bidlack, negotiated the Mallarino–Bidlack Treaty. Though Bidlack had initially only sought to remove tariffs on American goods, Bidlack and New Granadan Foreign Minister Manuel María Mallarino negotiated a broader agreement that deepened military and trade ties between the two countries. The treaty also allowed for the construction of the Panama Railway. In an era of slow overland travel, the treaty gave the United States a route for a quicker journey between its eastern and western coasts. In exchange, Bidlack agreed to have the United States guarantee New Granada's sovereignty over the Isthmus of Panama. The treaty won ratification in both countries in 1848. The agreement helped to establish a stronger American influence in the region, as the Polk administration sought to ensure that Great Britain would not dominate Central America. The United States would use the rights granted under the Mallarino-Bidlack Treaty as a justification for its military interventions in Latin America through the remainder of the 19th century.
In mid-1848, President Polk authorized his ambassador to Spain, Romulus Mitchell Saunders, to negotiate the purchase of Cuba and offer Spain up to $100 million, a large sum at the time for one territory, equal to $2.83 billion in present-day terms. Cuba was close to the United States and had slavery, so the idea appealed to Southerners but was unwelcome in the North. However, Spain was still making profits in Cuba (notably in sugar, molasses, rum and tobacco), and thus the Spanish government rejected Saunders' overtures. Though Polk was eager to acquire Cuba, he refused to support the filibuster expedition of Narciso López, who sought to invade and take over the island as a prelude to annexation.
In his inaugural address, Polk called upon Congress to re-establish the Independent Treasury System under which government funds were held in the Treasury and not in banks or other financial institutions. President Van Buren had previously established a similar system, but it had been abolished during the Tyler administration. Polk made clear his opposition to a national bank in his inaugural address, and in his first annual message to Congress in December 1845, called for the government to keep its funds itself. Congress was slow to act; the House passed a bill in April 1846 and the Senate in August, both without a single Whig vote. Polk signed the Independent Treasury Act into law on August 6, 1846. The act provided that the public revenues were to be retained in the Treasury building and in sub-treasuries in various cities, separate from private or state banks. The system would remain in place until the passage of the Federal Reserve Act in 1913.
Polk's other major domestic initiative was the lowering of the tariff. Polk directed Secretary of the Treasury Robert Walker to draft a new and lower tariff, which Polk submitted to Congress. After intense lobbying by both sides, the bill passed the House and, in a close vote that required Vice President Dallas to break a tie, the Senate in July 1846. Dallas, although from protectionist Pennsylvania, voted for the bill, having decided his best political prospects lay in supporting Polk.
Once passed by both houses, Polk signed the Walker Tariff into law, substantially reducing the rates that had been set by the Tariff of 1842. The reduction of tariffs in the United States and the repeal of the Corn Laws in Great Britain led to a boom in Anglo-American trade.
Congress passed the Rivers and Harbors Bill in 1846 to provide $500,000 to improve port facilities, but Polk vetoed it. Polk believed that the bill was unconstitutional because it unfairly favored particular areas, including ports that had no foreign trade. Polk considered internal improvements to be matters for the states, and feared that passing the bill would encourage legislators to compete for favors for their home district—a type of corruption that he felt would spell doom to the virtue of the republic. In this regard he followed his hero Jackson, who had vetoed the Maysville Road Bill in 1830 on similar grounds.
Opposed by conviction to Federal funding for internal improvements, Polk stood strongly against all such bills. Congress, in 1847, passed another internal improvements bill; he pocket vetoed it and sent Congress a full veto message when it met in December. Similar bills continued to advance in Congress in 1848, though none reached his desk. When he came to the Capitol to sign bills on March 3, 1849, the last day of the congressional session and his final full day in office, he feared that an internal improvements bill would pass Congress, and he brought with him a draft veto message. The bill did not pass, so it was not needed, but feeling the draft had been ably written, he had it preserved among his papers.
Authoritative word of the discovery of gold in California did not arrive in Washington until after the 1848 election, by which time Polk was a lame duck. Polk's political adversaries had claimed California was too far away to be useful, and was not worth the price paid to Mexico. The President was delighted by the news, seeing it as validation of his stance on expansion, and referred to the discovery several times in his final annual message to Congress that December. After samples of the California gold arrived, Polk sent a special message to Congress on the subject. The message, confirming less authoritative reports, caused large numbers of people to move to California, both from the U.S. and abroad, thus helping to spark the California Gold Rush.
One of Polk's last acts as President was to sign the bill creating the Department of the Interior (March 3, 1849). This was the first new cabinet position created since the early days of the Republic. Polk had misgivings about the federal government usurping power over public lands from the states; however, the delivery of the legislation on his last full day in office gave him no time to find constitutional grounds for a veto, or to draft a sufficient veto message, so Polk signed the bill.
Polk appointed the following justices to the U.S. Supreme Court:
|Levi Woodbury||Seat 2||September 20, 1845[b]||September 4, 1851|
|Robert Cooper Grier||Seat 3||August 4, 1846||January 31, 1870|
The 1844 death of Justice Henry Baldwin left a vacant place on the Supreme Court, but Tyler had been unable to get the Senate to confirm a nominee. At the time, it was the custom to have geographic balance on the Supreme Court, and Baldwin had been from Pennsylvania. Polk's efforts to fill Baldwin's seat became embroiled in Pennsylvania politics and the efforts of factional leaders to secure the lucrative post of Collector of Customs for the Port of Philadelphia. As Polk attempted to find his way through the minefield of Pennsylvania politics, a second position on the high court became vacant with the death, in September 1845, of Justice Joseph Story; his replacement was expected to come from his native New England. Because Story's death had occurred while the Senate was not in session, Polk was able to make a recess appointment, choosing Senator Levi Woodbury of New Hampshire, and when the Senate reconvened in December 1845, Woodbury was confirmed. Polk's nominee for Baldwin's seat, George W. Woodward, was rejected by the Senate in January 1846, in large part due to the opposition of Buchanan and Pennsylvania Senator Simon Cameron. Despite Polk's anger at Buchanan, he eventually offered the Secretary of State the seat, but Buchanan turned it down. Polk subsequently nominated Robert Cooper Grier of Pittsburgh, who won confirmation. Justice Woodbury died in 1851, but Grier served until 1870 and in the slavery case of Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) wrote an opinion stating that slaves were property and could not sue.
Polk appointed eight other federal judges, one to the United States Circuit Court of the District of Columbia, and seven to various United States district courts.
Honoring his pledge to serve only one term, Polk declined to seek re-election. At the 1848 Democratic National Convention, Cass led on all ballots, though it was not until the fourth that he attained a two-thirds vote. William Butler, who had replaced Winfield Scott as the commanding general in Mexico City, won the vice presidential nomination. The 1848 Whig National Convention nominated Taylor for president and former congressman Millard Fillmore of New York for vice president.
New York Democrats remained bitter because of what they deemed shabby treatment of Van Buren in 1844, and the former president had drifted from the party in the years since. Many of Van Buren's faction of the party, the Barnburners, were younger men who strongly opposed the spread of slavery, a position with which, by 1848, Van Buren agreed. Senator Cass was a strong expansionist, and slavery might find new fields under him; accordingly the Barnburners bolted the Democratic National Convention upon his nomination, and, in June, joined by anti-slavery Democrats from other states, they held a convention, nominating Van Buren for president. Polk was surprised and disappointed by his former ally's political conversion, and worried about the divisiveness of a sectional party organized around abolitionism. Polk did not campaign, remaining at his desk at the White House, likely because he deemed it unpresidential to canvass for votes. He did remove some Van Buren supporters from federal office.
In the election, Taylor won 47.3% of the popular vote and a majority of the electoral vote. Cass won 42.5% of the vote, while Van Buren finished with 10.1% of the popular vote, with much of his support coming from northern Democrats. Polk was disappointed by the outcome as he had a low opinion of Taylor, seeing the general as someone with poor judgment and few opinions on important public matters. Nevertheless, Polk observed tradition and welcomed President-elect Taylor to Washington, hosting him at a gala White House dinner. Polk departed the White House on March 3, leaving behind him a clean desk, though he worked from his hotel or the Capitol on last-minute appointments and bill signings. He attended Taylor's inauguration on March 5 (March 4, the presidential inauguration day until 1937, fell on a Sunday), and though he was unimpressed with the new President, wished him the best.
Polk's time in the White House took its toll on his health. Full of enthusiasm and vigor when he entered office, Polk left the presidency exhausted by his years of public service. He left Washington on March 6 for a pre-arranged triumphal tour of the South, to end in Nashville. Polk had two years previously arranged to buy a house there, afterwards dubbed Polk Place, that had once belonged to his old mentor, Felix Grundy.
James and Sarah Polk progressed down the Atlantic coast, and then westward through the Deep South. He was enthusiastically received and banqueted. By the time the Polks reached Alabama, he was suffering from a bad cold, and soon became concerned by reports of cholera—a passenger on Polk's riverboat died of it, and it was rumored to be common in New Orleans, but it was too late to change plans. Worried about his health, he would have departed the city quickly, but was overwhelmed by Louisiana hospitality. Several passengers on the riverboat up the Mississippi died of the disease, and Polk felt so ill that he went ashore for four days, staying in a hotel. A doctor assured him he did not have cholera, and Polk made the final leg, arriving in Nashville on April 2 to a huge reception.
After a visit to James's mother in Columbia, the Polks settled into Polk Place. The exhausted former president seemed to gain new life, but in early June, he fell ill again, likely with cholera. Attended by several doctors, he lingered for several days, and chose to be baptized into the Methodist Church, which he had long admired, though his mother arrived from Columbia with her Episcopalian clergyman. By traditional accounts, his last words before he died on June 15 were "I love you, Sarah, for all eternity, I love you"—Bornamen noted that whether or not they were spoken, there was nothing in Polk's life which would make the sentiment false.
Polk had a post-presidency of 103 days, the shortest of the presidents who did not die in office. His funeral was held at the McKendree Methodist Church in Nashville. Initially Polk was buried in what is now Nashville City Cemetery, due to a legal requirement related to his infectious disease death. He was moved to a tomb on the grounds of Polk Place (as specified in his will) less than a year later. Sarah Polk lived at Polk Place for 42 years after his death and died on August 14, 1891.
In 1893, the bodies of James and Sarah Polk were relocated to their current resting place on the grounds of the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville. Polk Place was demolished in 1900. In March 2017, the Tennessee Senate approved a resolution considered a "first step" toward relocating the Polks' remains to his father's home in Columbia, Tennessee; in addition to support by state lawmakers, the move requires approval by the courts and the Tennessee Historical Commission.
Polk was a slaveholder for most of his adult life. His father, Samuel Polk, in 1827 left Polk more than 8,000 acres (32 km²) of land, and divided about 53 slaves among his widow and children in his will. James inherited twenty of his father's slaves, either directly or from deceased brothers. In 1831, he became an absentee cotton planter, sending slaves to clear plantation land that his father had left him near Somerville, Tennessee. Four years later Polk sold his Somerville plantation and, together with his brother-in-law, bought 920 acres (3.7 km²) of land, a cotton plantation near Coffeeville, Mississippi, hoping to increase his income. The land in Mississippi was richer than that in Somerville, and Polk transferred his Tennessee slaves there, taking care to conceal from them that they were to be sent south. From the start of 1839, Polk, having bought out his brother-in-law, owned all of the Mississippi plantation, and ran it on a mostly absentee basis for the rest of his life. He occasionally visited—for example, he spent much of April 1844 on his Mississippi plantation, right before the Democratic convention.
In addition to the inherited slaves, in 1831, Polk purchased five more, mostly buying them in Kentucky, and expending $1,870, with the youngest having a recorded age of 11. As older children sold for a higher price, slave sellers routinely lied about age. Between 1834 and 1835, he bought five more, aged from 2 to 37, with the youngest a granddaughter of the oldest. The amount expended was $2,250. In 1839, he bought eight slaves from his brother William at a cost of $5,600. This represented three young adults and most of a family, though not including the father, whom James Polk had previously owned, and who had been sold to a slave trader as a chronic runaway.
The expenses of four campaigns (three for governor, one for the presidency) in six years kept Polk from making more slave purchases until after he was living in the White House. In an era when the presidential salary was expected to cover wages for the White House servants, Polk replaced them with slaves from his home in Tennessee. Polk did not purchase slaves with his presidential salary, likely for political reasons. Instead, he reinvested earnings from his plantation in the purchase of slaves, enjoining secrecy on his agent: "that as my private business does not concern the public, you will keep it to yourself".
Polk saw the plantation as his route to a comfortable existence after his presidency for himself and his wife; he did not intend to return to the practice of law. Hoping the increased labor force would increase his retirement income, he purchased seven slaves in 1846, through an agent, aged roughly between 12 and 17. The 17 year old and one of the 12 year olds were purchased together at an estate sale, and may have been brothers. The agent within weeks resold the younger boy to Polk's profit. The year 1847 saw the purchase of nine more. Three he purchased from Gideon Pillow, and his agent purchased six slaves, aged between 10 and 20. By the time of the purchase from Pillow, the Mexican War had begun and Polk sent payment with the letter in which he offered Pillow a commission in the Army. The purchase from Pillow was a slave Polk had previously owned and had sold for being a disruption, and his wife and child. None of the other slaves Polk purchased as President, all younger than 20, came with a parent, and as only in the one case were two slaves bought together, most likely none had an accompanying sibling as each faced life on Polk's plantation.
Discipline for those owned by Polk varied over time. At the Tennessee plantation, he employed an overseer named Herbert Biles, who was said to be relatively indulgent. Biles's illness in 1833 resulted in Polk replacing him with Ephraim Beanland, who tightened discipline and increased work. Polk backed his overseer, returning runaways who complained of beatings and other harsh treatment, "even though every report suggested that the overseer was a heartless brute". Beanland was hired for the Mississippi plantation, but was soon dismissed by Polk's partner, who deemed Beanland too harsh as the slaves undertook the arduous task of clearing the timber from the new plantation so it could be used for cotton farming. His replacement was discharged after a year for being too indulgent; the next died of dysentery in 1839. Others followed, and it was not until 1845 that Polk found a satisfactory overseer, John Mairs, who remained the rest of Polk's life and was still working at the plantation for Sarah Polk in 1860, when the widow sold a half-share in many of her slaves. There had been a constant stream of runaways under Mairs' predecessors, many seeking protection at the plantation of Polk relatives or friends; only one ran away between the time of Mairs' hiring and the end of 1847, but the overseer had to report three absconded slaves (including the one who had fled earlier) to Polk in 1848 and 1849.
Polk's will, dated February 28, 1849, a few days before the end of his presidency, contained the nonbinding expectation that his slaves were to be freed when both he and Sarah Polk were dead. The Mississippi plantation was expected to be the support of Sarah Polk during her widowhood. Sarah Polk lived until 1891, but the slaves were freed in 1865 by the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States. By selling a half-interest in the slaves in 1860, Sarah Polk had given up the sole power to free her slaves, and it is unlikely that her new partner, having paid her $28,500 for a half-interest in the plantation and its slaves, would have allowed the laborers to go free had she died while slavery was legal.
Like Jackson, Polk saw the politics of slavery as a side issue compared to more important matters such as territorial expansion and economic policy. However, the issue of slavery became increasingly polarizing during the 1840s, and Polk's expansionary policies increased its divisiveness. During his presidency, many abolitionists harshly criticized him as an instrument of the "Slave Power", and claimed that spreading slavery was the reason he supported annexing Texas and later war with Mexico. Polk did support the expansion of slavery's realm, with his views informed by his own family's experience of settling Tennessee, bringing slaves with them. He believed in Southern rights, meaning both the right of slave states not to have that institution interfered with by the Federal government, and the right of individual Southerners to bring their slaves with them into the new territory. Though Polk opposed the Wilmot Proviso, he also condemned southern agitation on the issue, and he accused both northern and southern leaders of attempting to use the slavery issue for political gain.
On March 4, 2017, new tombstones for three of his slaves, Elias Polk, Mary Polk and Matilda Polk, were placed in the Nashville City Cemetery. Elias and Mary Polk both survived slavery, dying in the 1880s; Matilda Polk died still in slavery in 1849, at the age of about 110.
After his death, Polk's historic reputation was initially formed by the attacks made on him in his own time. Whig politicians claimed that he was drawn from a well-deserved obscurity. Sam Houston is said to have observed that Polk, a teetotaler, was "a victim of the use of water as a beverage". Little was published about him but two biographies released in the wake of his death. Polk was not again the subject of a major biography until 1922, when Eugene I. McCormac published James K. Polk: A Political Biography. McCormac relied heavily on Polk's presidential diary, first published in 1909. When historians began ranking the presidents in 1948, Polk ranked 10th in Arthur M. Schlesinger's poll, and has subsequently ranked 8th in Schlesinger's 1962 poll, 11th in the Riders-McIver Poll (1996), and 14th in the 2017 survey by C-SPAN.
Borneman deemed Polk the most effective president prior to the Civil War, and noted that Polk expanded the power of the presidency, especially in its power as commander in chief and its oversight over the Executive Branch. Steven G. Calabresi and Christopher S. Yoo, in their history of presidential power, praised Polk's conduct of the Mexican War, "it seems unquestionable that his management of state affairs during this conflict was one of the strongest examples since Jackson of the use of presidential power to direct specifically the conduct of subordinate officers."
Harry S. Truman called Polk "a great president. Said what he intended to do and did it." Bergeron noted that the matters that Polk settled, he settled for his time. The questions of the banking system, and of the tariff, which Polk had made two of the main issues of his presidency, were not significantly revised until the 1860s. Similarly, other than the Gadsden Purchase and that of Alaska (1867) there was no major U.S. expansion until the 1890s.
Paul H. Bergeron wrote in his study of Polk's presidency: "Virtually everyone remembers Polk and his expansionist successes. He produced a new map of the United States, which fulfilled a continent-wide vision". "To look at that map," Robert W. Merry concluded, "and to take in the western and southwestern expanse included in it, is to see the magnitude of Polk's presidential accomplishments." Amy Greenberg, in her history of the Mexican War, found Polk's legacy to be more than territorial, "during a single brilliant term, he accomplished a feat that earlier presidents would have considered impossible. With the help of his wife, Sarah, he masterminded, provoked and successfully prosecuted a war that turned the United States into a world power." Borneman noted that in securing this expansion, Polk did not consider the likely effect on Mexicans and Native Americans, "That ignorance may well be debated on moral grounds, but it cannot take away Polk's stunning political achievement." James A. Rawley wrote in his American National Biography piece on Polk, "he added extensive territory to the United States, including Upper California and its valuable ports, and bequeathed a legacy of a nation poised on the Pacific rim prepared to emerge as a superpower in future generations".
Historians have criticized Polk for not perceiving that his territorial gains set the table for civil war. Pletcher stated that Polk, like others of his time, failed "to understand that sectionalism and expansion had formed a new, explosive compound". Fred I. Greenstein, in his journal article on Polk, noted that Polk "lacked a far-seeing awareness of the problems that were bound to arise over the status of slavery in the territory acquired from Mexico" William Dusinberre, in his volume on Polk as slave owner, suggested "that Polk's deep personal involvement in the plantation slavery system ... colored his stance on slavery-related issues".
Greenberg noted that Polk's war served as the training ground for that later conflict:
The conflict Polk engineered became the transformative event of the era. It not only changed the nation but also created a new generation of leaders, for good and for ill. In the military, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, Stonewall Jackson, George Meade, and Jefferson Davis all first experienced military command in Mexico. It was there that they learned the basis of the strategy and tactics that dominated the Civil War.