11. JAMES KNOX POLK 1845-1849
Often referred to as the first "dark horse" President, James K.
Polk was the last of the Jacksonians to sit in the White House,
and the last strong President until the Civil War.
He was born in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, in 1795.
Studious and industrious, Polk was graduated with honors in 1818
from the University of North Carolina. As a young lawyer he
entered politics, served in the Tennessee legislature, and
became a friend of Andrew Jackson.
In the House of Representatives, Polk was a chief lieutenant
of Jackson in his Bank war. He served as Speaker between 1835
and 1839, leaving to become Governor of Tennessee.
Until circumstances raised Polk's ambitions, he was a leading
contender for the Democratic nomination for Vice President in
1844. Both Martin Van Buren, who had been expected to win the
Democratic nomination for President, and Henry Clay, who was to
be the Whig nominee, tried to take the expansionist issue out of
the campaign by declaring themselves opposed to the annexation
of Texas. Polk, however, publicly asserted that Texas should be
"re-annexed" and all of Oregon "re-occupied."
The aged Jackson, correctly sensing that the people favored
expansion, urged the choice of a candidate committed to the
Nation's "Manifest Destiny." This view prevailed at the
Democratic Convention, where Polk was nominated on the ninth
"Who is James K. Polk?" Whigs jeered. Democrats replied Polk
was the candidate who stood for expansion. He linked the Texas
issue, popular in the South, with the Oregon question,
attractive to the North. Polk also favored acquiring California.
Even before he could take office, Congress passed a joint
resolution offering annexation to Texas. In so doing they
bequeathed Polk the possibility of war with Mexico, which soon
severed diplomatic relations.
In his stand on Oregon, the President seemed to be risking
war with Great Britain also. The 1844 Democratic platform
claimed the entire Oregon area, from the California boundary
northward to a latitude of 54'40', the southern boundary of
Russian Alaska. Extremists proclaimed "Fifty-four forty or
fight," but Polk, aware of diplomatic realities, knew that no
course short of war was likely to get all of Oregon. Happily,
neither he nor the British wanted a war.
He offered to settle by extending the Canadian boundary,
along the 49th parallel, from the Rockies to the Pacific. When
the British minister declined, Polk reasserted the American
claim to the entire area. Finally, the British settled for the
49th parallel, except for the southern tip of Vancouver Island.
The treaty was signed in 1846.
Acquisition of California proved far more difficult. Polk
sent an envoy to offer Mexico up to $20,000,000, plus settlement
of damage claims owed to Americans, in return for California and
the New Mexico country. Since no Mexican leader could cede half
his country and still stay in power, Polk's envoy was not
received. To bring pressure, Polk sent Gen. Zachary Taylor to
the disputed area on the Rio Grande.
To Mexican troops this was aggression, and they attacked
Congress declared war and, despite much Northern opposition,
supported the military operations. American forces won repeated
victories and occupied Mexico City. Finally, in 1848, Mexico
ceded New Mexico and California in return for $15,000,000 and
American assumption of the damage claims.
President Polk added a vast area to the United States, but
its acquisition precipitated a bitter quarrel between the North
and the South over expansion of slavery.
Polk, leaving office with his health undermined from hard
work, died in June 1849.
"President Polk added a vast area to the United States....."
"extended the Canadian boundary, along the 49th parallel, except
for the southern tip of Vancouver Island. The treaty was signed
"American forces won repeated victories and occupied Mexico
City. Finally, in 1848, Mexico ceded New Mexico and California
in return for $15,000,000 and American assumption of the damage
ancestral home web
White House web biography
..."last of the Jacksonians to sit in the White House, and the
last strong President until the Civil War"
Ranked as the 10th greatest President (out of 39) by a
Federalist Society poll in 2000 designed to remedy the flaws in
this type of survey. The Wall Street Journal summarized this
survey in a June 10, 2004 article in their Opinion Journal.
"Three presidents made the cut as "great": George Washington,
Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt. They are the top
three finishers in most surveys of scholars." "Eight presidents
were judged "near great," including Mr. Reagan, who finished
eighth. Among them only James K. Polk (10th) served just one
term." "Among recent presidents, only Mr. Reagan ranked as "near
great." JFK (18th) and LBJ (17th) were "above average," George
H.W. Bush (21st) and Bill Clinton (24th) "average," and Richard
Nixon (33rd), Gerald Ford (28th) "
The following from:
11th President of the United States from 1845 - 1849
Nickname: "Young Hickory"
Father: Samuel Polk
Mother: Jane Knox Polk
Married: Sarah Childress (1803-1891), on January 1, 1824
Education: Graduated from the University of North Carolina
Political Party: Democratic
Other Government Positions:
Member of Tennessee House of Representatives, 1823-25
Member of U.S. House of Representatives, 1825-39
Speaker of the House, 1835-39
Governor of Tennessee, 1839-41
Presidential Salary: $25,000/year
Points of Interest:
A week before he died, Polk was baptized a Methodist.
Gaslights were installed in the White House while Polk was a
Polk survived a gallstone operation at age 17 without anethesia
or antiseptics. Those medical practices were not used at the
The first annual White House Thanksgiving dinner was hosted by
Sarah Polk was a devout Presbyterian. She banned dancing,
card-playing and alcoholic beverages in the White House.
News of Polk's nomination was widely disseminated using the
telegraph. The first time his had been done.
Links to Relatives:
John and Susan Howell
Third Cousin 7 Times Removed of Elizabeth Jane & Jack Howell.
Common ancestor is William B. Polk