James Knox Polk (Pineville, November 2, 1795 – Nashville, June 15, 1849) was an American lawyer, farmer and politician who served as the 11th President of the United States from 1845 to 1849. He had previously served as a member of the House of Representatives from 1825 to 1839 and also 9th Governor of Tennessee from 1839 until 1841. Polk was a member of the Democratic Party, a disciple of Andrew Jackson and an advocate of Jacksonian Democracy. The United States expanded its territory significantly during his presidency through the annexation of the Republic of Texas, the establishment of the Oregon Territory, and through the Mexican Cession following the American victory in the Mexican-American War.
Polk built a successful career in law in Tennessee, was elected state representative in 1823 and then federal representative in 1825, becoming a strong supporter of Jackson. He served as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee in 1833 and then Speaker of the House in 1835. Polk left Congress in order to run for governor, winning in 1839 but losing in 1841 and 1843. He was considered an underdog for the Democratic nomination for president in the 1844 election; Polk entered his party’s convention as a potential vice presidential candidate, but emerged as a middle ground when no candidate could achieve a two-thirds majority. In the election, he defeated Henry Clay of the Whig Party.
Polk achieved in his tenure all of his governing goals, both internal and external. He was able to make a deal with Britain over Oregon, with the territory being divided mostly along the 49th Parallel. Polk achieved a major victory in the Mexican-American War, which resulted in Mexico ceding almost all of its territory from Alta California. Domestically, he also achieved a tax reduction in 1846. In the same year, he achieved another goal, the re-establishment of the system of an independent Treasury. Polk left the presidency in 1849, without seeking re-election, fulfilling a campaign promise, and returned to Tennessee. He died in Nashville three months after leaving office.
Historians have evaluated him positively for his ability to defend and achieve all the major items of his governing goals, and he was considered to be the most effective president in the pre-Secession War period. However, he was criticized for leading the country in a war against Mexico and for exacerbating sectional divisions between north and south. Polk was a slave owner for most of his adult life and owned a farm in Mississippi, even buying slaves while he was president. The greatest accomplishment of his presidency was the territorial expansion of the United States to the Pacific Ocean.
James Knox Polk was born on November 2, 1795 in a log cabin in Pineville, North Carolina, United States. He was the first of ten children born into a farming family. His mother was Jane Knox, who named him after his maternal grandfather, James Knox. His father was Samuel Polk, a slave-owning farmer and surveyor of Scottish and Irish descent. The Polks had immigrated to British America in the late 1600s, settling along the Maryland coast before moving south-central Pennsylvania until finally arriving in the Carolinas.
Polk and Knox were Presbyterians. Jane remained devout throughout her life, however Samuel, whose father Ezekiel Polk was a deist, rejected dogmatic Presbyterianism. He refused to declare his belief in Christianity at his son’s baptism, so the pastor refused to baptize Polk. According to James A. Rawley, Jane nevertheless “stamped her strict orthodoxy on James, perpetually instilling the Calvinistic traits of self-discipline, hard work, piety, individualism, and a belief in the imperfection of human nature.”
Ezekiel left in 1803 with four of his sons plus their families for the Duck River area of Tennessee; Samuel joined them with his own family in 1806. The Polks dominated local politics in Maury County and the new town of Columbia. Samuel became a county judge and guests who used to visit his home included such figures as Andrew Jackson, who by this time had served as a judge and in Congress. Polk learned from the political talk that took place at the dinner table; both his father and grandfather were great supporters of President Thomas Jefferson and opponents of the Federalist Party.
Polk had poor health as a child, a great handicap in a frontier society. His father took him to meet with Doctor Philip Syng Physick, a prominent Philadelphia physician, in order to treat urinary stones. The trip was interrupted by Polk’s pain, with Doctor Ephraim McDowell of Danville, Kentucky, eventually operating on him. No anesthetic other than cognac was available. The operation was a success, however it may have left Polk sterile or impotent, since he never had children. He recovered quickly and became more robust. His father offered to put him to work in one of the family businesses, however Polk wanted an education and enrolled in 1813 in a Presbyterian academy. He became a member of the Zionist Church near his home the same year and then enrolled in the Zionist Church Academy. He then entered Bradley Academy in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where he proved to be a promising student.
Polk entered the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in January 1816 as a second-semester sophomore. The Polk family had connections to the university, then a small school attended by approximately eighty students; Samuel was the institution’s Tennessee trustee while his cousin William Polk was a trustee. His roommate was William Dunn Moseley, who became the first governor of Florida. Polk joined the Dialectical Society, where he participated in debates and learned the art of oratory, becoming its president. He warned in a speech that some of America’s leaders were flirting with monarchical ideals, singling out Alexander Hamilton, Jefferson’s opponent. He graduated with honors in May 1818.
He returned to Nashville, Tennessee, after graduating with the goal of studying law with the renowned criminal lawyer Felix Grundy, who eventually became his mentor. Polk was elected on September 20, 1819 as the clerk of the Tennessee State Senate, which at the time met in Murfreesboro and to which Grundy had been elected. He was re-elected clerk in 1821 without opposition, continuing in office until the following year. He was admitted to the Tennessee bar in June 1820, with his first case being defending his own father against a charge of fighting in public; Polk secured Samuel’s release upon payment of a fine amounting to only one dollar. He opened an office in Maury County and became a successful lawyer, mainly by handling many cases that arose due to the Panic of 1819, a great financial depression. The practice of law subsidized his political career.
Polk, by the time the state legislature went into recess in September 1822, was determined to run for the Tennessee House of Representatives. The election would be in August 1823, allowing him plenty of time to campaign. He was already known locally to be part of Freemasonry, being commissioned into the Tennessee Militia as a captain in the 5th Brigade cavalry regiment. He was later appointed a colonel on Governor William Carroll’s staff, after which he was often referred to as “Colonel.” Polk was energetic in his campaign, even with many of the voters being members of his clan. People liked his oratory, which earned him the nickname “Napoleon of the Knock”. He made alcoholic beverages available to his voters at polling places and managed to defeat incumbent William Yancey.
Beginning in early 1822, Polk began courting Sarah Childress; the two became engaged the following year and were married on January 1, 1824 in Murfreesboro. Sarah received a much better education than other women of the time, especially in Tennessee, and she also came from one of the most prominent families in the state. She used to help her husband with his speeches, gave him advice on political issues, and played an active role during election campaigns. Rawley commented that Sarah’s grace, intelligence, and charisma helped to offset her husband’s often austere mannerisms.
Grundy was Polk’s mentor in law, however the latter increasingly came to oppose the former in the legislature on issues such as land reform, moving to support the policies of Andrew Jackson, then a military hero after his 1815 victory at the Battle of New Orleans. Jackson was a family friend of both the Polks and Childress – there is evidence that Sarah and her brothers called him “Uncle Andrew” – with Polk quickly backing him for his presidential ambitions in 1824. Jackson’s name was put forward in 1823 for a nomination to the United States Senate after the Tennessee legislature failed to agree on whom to elect. Polk broke with his usual allies and voted for Jackson’s victory. This extended the latter’s presidential chances by giving him recent political experience to match his military accomplishments. Thus began an alliance that would continue until Jackson’s death in 1845. Polk was known during much of his political career as “New Walnut”, based on one of Jackson’s nicknames which was “Old Walnut”. His political career was extremely dependent on Jackson as his nickname implied.
Jackson won the most electoral and popular votes in the 1824 presidential election, but because he did not achieve a majority in the Electoral College, the election was passed to the House of Representatives, which ultimately chose John Quincy Adams, who had come in second in the race. Polk, as well as other Jackson supporters, believed that Henry Clay, the Speaker of the House, had traded his support as fourth in the election to Adams in a corrupt bargain to become the new Secretary of State. Polk had announced in August his candidacy for the chamber the following year, for Tennessee’s sixth congressional district. He was so vigorous in his campaign that Sarah began to become concerned for her husband’s health. His opponents charged that, at 29 years of age, he was too young for the responsibilities of a congressman, but he still won the election with 3,669 votes out of 10,440, taking office in March.
Polk arrived in Washington, D.C. in December 1825 for the regular session of Congress, staying at Benjamin Burch’s boarding house along with other Tennessee legislators, including Sam Houston. Polk made his first major speech on March 13, 1826, declaring that the Electoral College should be abolished and that the president should be elected by popular vote. He became a major critic of the government as he still resented the bargain made between Clay and Adams, often voting against the president’s policies. Sarah remained at home in Columbia during her husband’s first year in Congress, but joined him in Washington from December 1826; she helped him with his correspondence and went to hear his speeches.
He was reelected in 1827 and continued in opposition. Polk remained in close contact with Jackson, serving as an advisor when the latter ran for president in 1828. He became one of Jackson’s most prominent and loyal supporters in the chamber after the latter won the election. He worked on behalf of the new president to oppose federally subsidized “internal improvements,” such as a proposed road between Buffalo and New Orleans, being pleased in May 1830 by the veto of the Maysville Highway, when Jackson blocked a project that would fund the extension of a road within a single state because he considered it unconstitutional. The president’s opponents claimed that the veto message, which complained about Congress approving electioneering projects, was written by Polk, but he denied this and claimed that the message was entirely Jackson’s own.
Polk was also the president’s greatest ally in the chamber during the “Bank War,” which developed over Jackson’s opposition to re-authorization of the Second Bank of the United States. This held federal dollars, as well as controlling much of the credit of the United States, since it could turn over money issued by local banks for redemption in gold and silver. Some western politicians, such as the president, were against the bank because they felt it was a monopoly acting in the interests of the east. Polk, as a member of the Committee on Ways and Means, conducted investigations into the Second Bank, and the committee nevertheless ended up voting for a bill to renew the charter, with him writing a minority report condemning the bank. The bill passed congress in 1832, but Jackson vetoed it, and congress was unable to reverse the president’s decision. Jackson’s action was extremely controversial, however it received considerable public support and he easily won re-election in 1832.
Like many Southerners, Polk favored low taxes on imported goods, initially sympathizing with John C. Calhoun’s opposition to the Tariff of Abominations during the Nullification Crisis of 1832-33, but eventually moved to Jackson’s side once Calhoun began advocating secession. He thus remained loyal to the president as he sought to assert federal power. Polk condemned the idea of secession and supported the Force Bill against South Carolina, which had claimed the authority to nullify federal taxes. The issue was resolved with Congress passing a mid-term tariff.
Polk became, in December 1835, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, a powerful position in the chamber, shortly after he was reelected to a fifth consecutive term. In that position, he supported Jackson’s withdrawal of federal funds from the Second Bank. His committee issued a report questioning the bank’s finances, supporting the president’s actions in another. The committee had delivered a bill in April 1834 to regulate state deposit banks, which allowed Jackson to deposit surpluses in other banks, with Polk succeeding in passing legislation allowing the sale of government stock in the Second Bank.
Andrew Stevenson, Speaker of the House of Representatives, resigned from Congress in June 1834 to become ambassador to the United Kingdom. Polk ran for the post with the president’s support, facing John Bell, Richard Henry Wilde, and Joel Barlow Sutherland. Bell, who had the support of many of the government’s opponents, won the election after ten votes. Jackson asserted political debts to try to get Polk chosen mayor at the beginning of the next congress in December 1835, promising him in a letter, which was to have been destroyed later, that all of New England would support him. They succeeded, and Polk succeeded Bell in office.
According to historian Thomas M. Leonard, “Polk, around 1836, while serving as Speaker of the House of Representatives, reached the peak of his congressional career. He was at the center of Jacksonian Democracy on the floor of the chamber and, with the help of his wife, had integrated himself into Washington’s social circles.” The prestige that came from being mayor caused the couple to abandon the Washington boarding house where they were living in favor of a residence of their own on Pennsylvania Avenue. Martin Van Buren, Jackson’s vice president and chosen successor, defeated several Whig Party candidates in the 1836 presidential election. Whig strength in Tennessee caused Senator Hugh Lawson White to win the state, however Polk’s district went to Van Buren. Ninety percent of the population of Tennessee had voted for Jackson in 1832, however many in the state did not like the end of the Second Bank or were unwilling to support Van Buren.
Polk, as congressional chairman, worked in favor of Jackson’s and then Van Buren’s policies. He appointed committees with a Democratic Party majority, including radical Congressman Churchill C. Cambreleng of New York to the Ways and Means chair, yet even then he tried to maintain the traditionally nonpartisan appearance of the president. The two biggest issues he faced in office were slavery and, after the Panic of 1837, the economy. Polk enforced the “gag rule,” whereby the House of Representatives would not accept or debate petitions about slavery. This generated fierce protests coming from Adams, who at the time had become an abolitionist and Congressman for Massachusetts. Instead of trying to silence the former president, Polk often got into verbal arguments with Adams, causing Jackson to conclude that the mayor should have exercised better leadership. Van Buren and Polk also faced pressure over the rescission of an 1836 order by Jackson that payments for government lands should be made in gold and silver. Some believed that this had led to the financial crisis by creating a lack of confidence in paper money issued by banks. Despite such arguments, Van Buren, with the support of Polk and the cabinet, chose to maintain order. The two tried to establish an independent treasury system that would allow the government to supervise its own deposits, but the bill was defeated in the chamber. It was eventually passed in 1840.
Polk tried, through his profound knowledge of the chamber’s rules, to bring greater order to the proceedings. He never challenged anyone to a duel no matter how much they insulted his honor, unlike many of his colleagues. Financial decline cost the Democrats seats in Congress, and he won re-election as mayor in December 1837 by only thirteen votes, predicting that he would be defeated in the general election in 1839. Polk had presidential ambitions, however he was aware that no mayor had ever become president (he is to this day the only person to have held both positions). He announced that after seven terms as a congressman, two of them as mayor, he would not seek re-election, choosing instead to run in 1839 for Governor of Tennessee.
The Democrats, for the first time in history, had lost the Tennessee governorship in 1835, with Polk ultimately deciding to return home to help his party. The state was agitated by various partisan disputes, having changed much in its political allegiances since the days of broad Jacksonian domination. Polk ran his first state-level campaign against Newton Cannon, the Whig incumbent, who was seeking his third two-year term as governor. The fact that he was the person summoned to “redeem” Tennessee from the Whigs tacitly recognized him as the state leader of the Democratic Party.
Polk campaigned on national issues, while Cannon stressed local issues. The governor was outspent by Polk in the early debates, thus returning to the capital Nashville as he claimed important official duties. Polk gave speeches throughout the state, seeking to become better known than just in central Tennessee. He went after Cannon when the latter returned to campaign in his final days, traversing the entire state so that he could debate with the governor once again. Polk defeated Cannon on August 1, 1839 by 54,102 votes to 51,396, with the Democrats also regaining the state legislature and winning three congressional seats for Tennessee.
The governor of Tennessee had limited powers: he held no veto power and the small size of state government limited political patronage. However, Polk saw the office as a springboard for his national ambitions, wanting to be named as Van Buren’s vice president at the Democratic National Convention in May 1840. He hoped to be the replacement should Vice President Richard Mentor Johnson be dropped from the slate; Johnson was not popular with many Southerners for having had two daughters by biracial mistresses and for having tried to introduce them into white society. The vice president was from Kentucky, while Polk’s Tennessee background would bring balance because Van Buren was from upstate New York. The convention chose not to endorse any vice-presidential candidate, stating that the choice would be made after the popular vote had been cast. Polk withdrew his name from the race three weeks later, recognizing that Johnson was too popular to be replaced. General William Henry Harrison, the Whig candidate, ran a jocular campaign with the slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” easily winning both the national vote and the state of Tennessee. Polk campaigned in vain for Van Buren and was embarrassed by the result; Jackson, who had returned to his farm near Nashville, was horrified by the prospect of a whig government. Harrison died a month after taking office and was succeeded by his vice president John Tyler, who quickly fell out of favor with the Whigs.
Polk’s three major programs as governor were the regulation of state banks, the implementation of internal improvements, and education, yet they were unable to win the approval of the legislature. His only major success was the politicking that ensured that the two Whigs senators from Tennessee were replaced by Democrats. His tenure was hampered by the economic crisis that followed the Panic of 1837 and that had caused Van Buren’s defeat in the 1840 election.
The Whigs, encouraged by Harrison’s successful campaign, put up freshman state representative James C. Jones of Wilson County to run against Polk in 1841. Jones proved an extremely effective nuisance against Polk, with his cheerful, carefree tone during the debates contrasting very effectively with the governor’s serious tone. The two debated over the length of Tennessee, with Jones’ support for the distribution to the states of surplus federal revenues and advocacy of a national bank catching the attention of voters. Polk was eventually defeated in August 1841 by three thousand votes, his first electoral defeat. He returned to Columbia and the practice of law, preparing to run again against Jones in 1843, but he was defeated again, this time by 3,833 votes, even though Jones ran a far less jocular campaign than the first time. His political future was uncertain after two consecutive statewide defeats.
Polk, despite his defeats, was determined to become the next Vice President of the United States, seeing the position as a path to the presidency. Van Buren was the favorite for the Democratic nomination, and Polk began a painstaking campaign to be his running mate. The former president faced opposition from Southerners who feared his views on slavery, while his handling of the Panic of 1837 generated opposition from some in the west who believed his policies had harmed that area of the country. Many southerners supported a Calhoun candidacy, while many in the east stuck with Senator Lewis Cass of Michigan, with former Vice President Johnson still maintaining strong supporters 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 by hinting that a slate of the two could win in Tennessee, however the former president was not convinced.
The biggest political issue in the United States at the time was territorial expansion. The Republic of Texas had successfully revolted in 1836 against Mexico. Texas was mostly populated by American immigrants, with those on both sides of the Sabine River border considering it inevitable that Texas would join the United States, however this would anger Mexico, which considered the territory a rebel province and was threatening war if it was annexed by the Americans. Jackson, as president, recognized Texas independence, but the initial desire for annexation had cooled. Britain wanted to expand its influence into Texas: the British had abolished slavery, and if Texas did the same, it would create a western haven for runaway slaves, just like the north. A Texas outside the United States would also stand in the way of what was seen as American Manifest Destiny over the continent.
Clay was nominated for president by acclamation during the Whig National Convention held in April 1844, with Theodore Frelinghuysen of New Jersey chosen as his running mate. Clay, a Kentucky slave owner at a time when opponents of Texas annexation argued that this would give slavery more room to spread, sought greater nuance on the position. Jackson, who supported a slate consisting of Van Buren and Polk, was amazed to learn that Clay had published a letter in the newspapers opposing annexation, yet was devastated to discover that Van Buren had done the same thing. Van Buren did so because he feared he was losing his support base in the northeast, yet his supporters in the southwest were perplexed. Polk, on the other hand, wrote a pro-annexation letter that had been published four days before Van Buren’s letter. Jackson sadly wrote to his former vice president that no candidate against annexation could be elected, deciding that Polk was the best choice to lead the ticket. Jackson met with Polk on May 13 and explained that only a southern or southwestern expansionist could be elected, believing that Polk had the best chance. The latter was initially frightened, saying that the plan was “totally abortive,” but eventually accepted. Polk immediately wrote instructing his representatives at the convention to work for his nomination for president.
Polk was skeptical that he could win, even with Jackson’s careful efforts on his behalf. However, due to opposition against Van Buren by expansionists in the west and south, Gideon Johnson Pillow, Polk’s chief representative at the convention, believed that the former governor could emerge as a mid-term candidate. Polk remained in Columbia throughout the convention and publicly expressed his full support for a Van Buren candidacy, with many believing he was seeking the vice presidency. He was one of the few prominent Democrats who declared support for the annexation of Texas.
The convention began on May 27. An important question was whether the candidate would need two-thirds of the delegates’ votes, as had happened at previous conventions, or a simple majority. A two-thirds vote would end Van Buren’s candidacy. The two-thirds rule was passed with the help of the southern states. Van Buren managed a majority in the first presidential vote, but did not reach the necessary two-thirds, with his support dwindling more and more in subsequent votes. Cass, Johnson, Calhoun, and James Buchanan also received votes on the first ballot, with Cass taking the lead on the fifth ballot. The convention continued in a deadlock after the seventh vote: Cass was failing to attract the support needed to reach two-thirds, while Van Buren’s supporters were increasingly disillusioned about his chances. The delegates were willing to consider a new candidate who could break the deadlock.
The convention went into recess at the end of the seventh ballot, and Pillow, who was waiting for the best opportunity to put forward Polk’s name, went to talk to George Bancroft of Massachusetts, a politician and historian who was a long-time correspondent of Polk’s, who planned to nominate him for vice president. Bancroft had supported a Van Buren candidacy and was willing to see Senator Silas Wright of New York at the head of the ticket, however the latter would not consider taking a nomination that the former president wanted. Pillow and Bancroft thought that if Polk was nominated for president, Wright might accept to be vice president. Former Attorney General Benjamin Franklin Butler, head of the New York delegation, read before the eighth ballot a pre-written letter by Van Buren to be used if he could not be nominated, withdrawing from the race in favor of Wright. However, the senator had also prepared a letter in which he refused to be considered as a presidential candidate and stated that he agreed with Van Buren’s position on Texas. Wright probably would have been nominated had his letter never been read, however without him, Butler began rallying Van Buren’s supporters in the defense that Polk was the best possible candidate, with Bancroft presenting his name before the convention. Polk received only 44 votes on the eighth ballot, compared to Cass’s 114 and Van Buren’s 104, however the stalemate seemed to be about to end. Butler formally withdrew the former president’s name, with many delegates declaring their support for Polk, with him receiving 233 votes on the ninth ballot to Cass’s 29, securing him the nomination. Subsequently the nomination was made unanimous.
This left open the question of who would be the vice presidential candidate. Butler advocated a Wright nomination and the convention agreed to the idea, with only eight Georgia delegates dissenting. News of Wright’s nomination was sent to him by telegraph to Washington, where he was at the time, while the convention waited. He ultimately declined to accept the second spot on the slate, as he had already turned down the almost certain nomination for president. Senator Robert J. Walker of Mississippi, Polk’s close ally, then suggested former Senator George M. Dallas of Pennsylvania. This was an acceptable candidate to all Democratic factions and was chosen as the vice-presidential nomination on the very second ballot. The delegates then approved a platform and closed the convention on May 30.
Many contemporary politicians, including Pillow and Bancroft, claimed in later years credit for getting Polk the nomination, however, historian Walter R. Borneman felt that the two people who most deserved the credit were Polk and Jackson: “the two who did the most were there in Tennessee, one an aging icon comfortable in and the other an astute career politician waiting expectantly in Columbia.” The Whigs ridiculed Polk with the chant of “Who is James K. Polk?”, claiming they had never heard of him until then. Although Polk had experience as a congressman, Speaker of the House of Representatives, and Governor of Tennessee, all of the presidents up to that point had previously been vice presidents, secretaries of state, or high-ranking generals. Polk was described as America’s first “underdog” presidential candidate, yet his nomination was a far smaller surprise than those of future candidates Franklin Pierce in 1852 and Warren G. Harding in 1920. Clay, despite the derision of his party, recognized that his opponent could unite the Democrats.
Rumors of Polk’s nomination arrived in Nashville on June 4, much to Jackson’s delight; they were confirmed the next day. Dispatches were sent to Columbia and arrived the same day, with letters and newspapers describing what had happened at the convention, reaching Polk’s hands on June 6. He accepted the nomination by letter on June 12, claiming that he had never wanted the position and stating his intention to serve only one term. Wright was embittered by what he called a “dirty plot” against Van Buren, demanding assurances from Polk that he had played no role; Wright supported the campaign only after the candidate assured him that he remained loyal to the former president. Polk remained in Columbia and made no speeches at all, following the custom of the time for presidential candidates to avoid campaigning and appear to want the job. He nevertheless maintained constant correspondence with party officials in order to organize actions. Polk made his opinions public in his letter accepting the nomination and through answers to questions sent in by citizens that were published in the newspapers, often in some arrangement.
A possible sticking point for Polk’s campaign was whether the tax should be just for income or whether it was intended to protect American industry. He elaborated on the issue in a public letter. Polk stated that he had always maintained that taxes should be sufficient only to fund government operations, and that he held his view, but wrote that within that limitation, the government could and should provide “fair and equitable protection” to the nation’s interests, including manufacturing. He refused to comment on the issue any further than that, which was acceptable to the Democrats, even as the Whigs pointed out that he had not committed himself to anything. A Whig delegation from neighboring Giles County went to Columbia in September carrying specific questions about Polk’s positions on the current tax, the Tariff of 1842 passed by the Whigs, stating that they would not leave until they got answers. He took several days to respond and chose to maintain his previous positions, causing fuss in the Whig newspapers.
Another concern was President Tyler’s candidacy by a third party, something that could split the Democratic vote. Tyler had been nominated by a loyal group of public officials. He had no illusions that he could win, but believed that he could attract state’s rights supporters and populists in order to dominate the balance of power in the election. Jackson was the only person with the stature to fix the situation, which he did in two letters sent to friends in the Cabinet that he knew would be shown to the President, saying that his supporters would be accepted back into the Democratic Party. The former president also wrote that once Tyler withdrew from the race, many Democrats would accept him because of his pro-annexation position. Jackson also used his influence to prevent Francis Preston Blair and his newspaper The Washington Globe, a semi-official party organ, from continuing to attack the president. This was enough and Tyler withdrew from the race in August.
Partisan problems were a third issue. Polk and Calhoun made peace when Francis Wilkinson Pickens, a former federal congressman from South Carolina, visited Columbia for two days and then went to the Jackson estate for talking sessions with the increasingly ill former president. Calhoun wanted The Washington Globe dissolved, Polk to act against the taxes passed in 1842, and to promote annexation. Once he got those promises, he became a major supporter.
Polk got help on the Texas issue when Clay, having realized that his anti-annexation position had cost him support, tried to clarify his views in two other letters. This ended up angering both sides, who attacked the candidate, accusing him of insincerity. Texas also threatened to divide the Democrats sectionally, yet Polk managed to calm most southern party leaders without antagonizing the northerners. It became increasingly clear as the election approached that most of the country was in favor of annexation, with some southern Whig leaders supporting Polk’s campaign because of Clay’s anti-annexation position.
The campaign was vitriolic; both candidates accused the other of various malicious acts, with Polk being accused of being a duelist and a coward. The most damaging libel was the “Roorback forgery”: an item appeared in late August in an abolitionist newspaper, part of a book detailing fictional travels through the southern United States by one Baron von Roorback, an imaginary Germanic nobleman. The Ithaca Chronicle published it without marking it as fiction and inserted a sentence that said the traveler saw Polk selling forty slaves after marking them with his initials. The item was removed from the Chronicle after being challenged by Democrats, however it was widely republished. Borneman believes that the forgery actually favored Polk, as it served as a reminder to voters that Clay also owned slaves. Historian John Eisenhower wrote that the smear occurred too late to be refuted, and probably cost Polk Ohio. On the other hand, some Southern newspapers defended Polk, with one in Nashville claiming that slaves preferred branding over freedom. Polk himself told correspondents that his slaves had been inherited or bought from struggling relatives; allies like Pillow painted this paternalistic image. This was not true, however it was not known at the time: Polk by then had bought over thirty slaves, both from relatives and others, mainly to serve as labor on his Mississippi cotton farm.
The election in 1844 did not take place on a single day, with the states actually holding their votes between November 1 and November 12. Polk won the race with 49.5 percent of the popular vote and 170 of the 275 electoral votes. He became the first president to be elected even though he lost in his home state of Tennessee, and also lost in his birth state of North Carolina. However, he won in Pennsylvania and New York, where Clay lost votes to anti-slavery candidate James G. Birney of the Freedom Party, who got more votes in New York than Polk’s margin of victory. Clay would have been elected president had he been able to win in New York.
Polk presided over a country whose population had doubled every twenty years since the American Revolution and which had achieved geographical equality with the United Kingdom. His tenure saw continuous technological improvements, including the continued expansion of railroads and increasing use of telegraphy. These improved communication and population growth made the United States an ever greater military power, while also fueling its expansionism.
Polk set four goals for his government: the reestablishment of an Independent Treasury System, since the Whigs had abolished the one created by Van Buren; the reduction of taxes; the acquisition of part or all of Oregon Land; and the acquisition of Alta California and its ports from Mexico. Their internal goals aligned with Democratic policies, while the realization of their external ambitions would mean the first major territorial acquisitions of the United States since the Treaty of Adams-Onís in 1819.
Transition and Office
Polk was informed of his victory on November 15 and began to focus his attention on forming a geographically balanced cabinet. He consulted with Jackson and one or two other allies, deciding that the large states of New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia should be represented in the six-person cabinet, as well as his home state of Tennessee. At the time, a new president sometimes kept some of his predecessor’s department heads, however Polk wanted an entirely new cabinet and this proved delicate. Tyler’s last Secretary of State had been Calhoun, leader of a sizeable faction of the Democratic Party, however, when approached by emissaries, he was not offended and was willing to leave the post.
The president-elect did not want his cabinet to have politicians with presidential aspirations, but nevertheless ended up choosing Senator James Buchanan of Pennsylvania, whose presidential ambition was widely known at the time, as his Secretary of State. Congressman Cave Johnson of Tennessee, a close friend and ally of Polk, was chosen as Postmaster General, while Bancroft, who played a major role in the Democratic convention, was named the new Secretary of the Navy. Their choices were approved by Jackson, whom Polk last met in January 1845, as the former president died in June.
John Y. Mason of Virginia, Tyler’s last Secretary of the Navy, was a friend of Polk’s since college days and an old ally, yet he was not on the original list for a cabinet position. As the choices were affected by factional politicking and Tyler’s desire to resolve the Texas issue before leaving office, Polk ended up choosing Mason as his Attorney General at the last minute. Walker was also chosen as the Secretary of the Treasury and William L. Marcy of New York as Secretary of War. All were confirmed by the Senate as soon as Polk took office. The members worked well together and few replacements were needed. One change was needed in 1846 when Bancroft, who wanted a diplomatic post, was appointed ambassador to the United Kingdom.
While Polk formed his cabinet, Tyler sought to finalize the annexation of Texas. The Senate had previously disapproved of a treaty to annex the republic, but the president asked Congress to pass a joint resolution, relying on its constitutional power to admit new states to the union. There were disagreements over the terms under which Texas would be accepted, with Polk becoming involved in the negotiations to end the impasse. With his help, annexation was approved by a small margin in the Senate. Tyler was unsure whether to sign the resolution himself or leave it to Polk, sending Calhoun to consult with his successor, who would give no advice. The president eventually offered annexation to Texas under the terms of the resolution during his last day in office, March 3, 1845.
Polk wrote to Johnson before the inauguration that “I intend to be President of the U.S. myself.” He would eventually earn a reputation as a hard worker, spending up to twelve hours a day at his desk, rarely leaving Washington. He wrote: “No President who performs his duties faithfully and conscientiously can have any leisure. I prefer to superintend all the operations of the government myself rather than entrust public affairs to subordinates, and this makes my duties many.” Polk took office on March 4, 1845 at the age of 49, then the youngest president in history. His inauguration ceremony was the first to be reported by telegraph and the first to be shown in a newspaper illustration.
His inaugural speech took place in the rain, with him making clear his support for annexation by referring to 28 states, thus including Texas. He proclaimed his allegiance to Jackson’s principles by quoting a famous toast of the latter: “Every lover of this country should tremble at the possibility of its dissolution, and be ready to adopt the patriotic sentiment, ‘Our Federal Union-it shall be preserved.'” He stated his opposition to a national bank and repeated that taxes could include incidental protections. Although he did not mention slavery specifically, he did reference it, condemning those who wanted to do away with an institution protected by the United States Constitution.
Polk devoted the second half of his speech to addressing foreign policy issues, specifically those related to territorial expansion. He applauded the annexation of Texas, stating that this was not a matter for any other country to get involved in, certainly Mexico. He also talked about Oregon Land and the many who were migrating there, promising to defend America’s interests there and protect its settlers.
The new president chose Joseph Knox Walker, his sister’s son, to be his personal secretary, an especially important position because, apart from his slaves, Polk had no White House staff. Walker went to live in the presidential residence along with his growing family (two children were born while he lived there) and performed his duties competently throughout his uncle’s term. Other relatives used to visit the White House, some for extended periods of time.
The United Kingdom claimed ownership of Oregon Land from the voyages undertaken by James Cook and George Vancouver in the 18th century, while the United States based its claim on the Lewis and Clark Expedition and the discovery of the Columbia River by American Robert Gray. The Russian Empire had, by treaty, given up any territorial claims south of the Russian American border, while Spain, which until the Mexican War of Independence owned the entire Pacific Ocean coast south of the 42nd parallel, had ceded any possible claims to the area to the north to the United States in the Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819.
The United States and the United Kingdom negotiated rather than go to war over a distant and sparsely populated territory. The Oregon Land had been under joint occupation and control by the two countries since the time of the signing of the Treaty of 1818. Previous US governments had offered to divide the territory along the 49th parallel, something that was not acceptable to the British, as they had commercial interests in the Columbia River. The partition proposed by the United Kingdom was unacceptable to Polk, as the United States would give up the Puget Estuary and all lands north of the Columbia River, while the British were unwilling to accept the 49th parallel going all the way to the Pacific coast, as it would cause the entire estuary to remain with the Americans, isolating their settlements on the banks of the Fraser River. Edward Everett, Tyler’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, had informally proposed dividing the territory along the 49th parallel and granting strategic Vancouver Island to the British, thus allowing them access to the Pacific; however, when Richard Pakenham, the new UK ambassador to Washington, arrived in 1844 to pursue negotiations, he found that many Americans wanted the entire territory. Oregon had not been a major issue in the 1844 election, however a treaty with the British was made more urgent by the large influx of American settlers in 1845, coupled with the ever-present expansionist spirit as Texas and Oregon drew public attention. Many in the Democratic Party believed that the United States should go from the Atlantic to the Pacific, a philosophy described as Manifest Destiny.
Both sides sought an agreement, but they also saw the territory for its geopolitical value that would play an important role in determining who would be the dominant power in North America. Polk had announced in his inaugural speech that they viewed the American claim as “clear and unquestionable,” receiving threats of war from British leaders should he attempt to take the entire territory. The president had avoided calling for the entire territory, which reached to the 54th parallel, even with the Democratic platform making that claim. Polk, despite his bellicose rhetoric, considered a war with Britain unwise, with he and Buchanan opening negotiations. The president, like his predecessors, proposed a division along the 49th parallel, something that was immediately refused by Pakenham. Buchanan was wary about a war on two fronts against Mexico and the United Kingdom, while Polk did not want to risk war with both in search of a favorable agreement. The president, in his annual message to congress in December 1845, cited the Monroe Doctrine to speak of the United States’ intention to keep European powers at bay, its first major use since its origin in 1823. Congress, after much debate, eventually passed a resolution in April 1846, also attaching its hope that the issue would be resolved amicably.
Lord George Hamilton-Gordon, 4th Earl of Aberdeen and Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, learned of Pakenham’s rejected proposal and asked the United States for negotiations to be reopened, however Polk was unwilling unless an offer came from the British. Good trade relations with the Americans were more important to Aberdeen than a distant territory, as Britain was moving toward free trade with the abolition of the Grain Laws. The president allowed Buchanan to inform Louis McLane, ambassador to London, that the government would favorably receive a British proposal based on the division of the 49th parallel. Pakenham submitted an offer in June 1846, asking for a boundary along the 49th parallel, except that the United Kingdom would keep Vancouver Island, with British subjects also getting limited navigation rights down the Columbia River until the end of the Hudson Bay Company charter in 1859. Polk and most of the cabinet were prepared to accept the proposal, however Buchanan changed his mind and called for the United States to try to control all of Oregon Land. Polk considered that his secretary’s turn was connected with his presidential ambitions.
Buchanan was finally convinced and Polk chose to have the senate evaluate (favorably) a draft of the treaty, then submit it fully to the senate for ratification. The Oregon Treaty passed in a vote of 41 to 14, with the opposition coming from the radicals who wished to take the entire territory. Polk’s apparent willingness to go to war against Britain had frightened many, but his negotiating tactics won the United States concessions from the British, particularly over the Columbia River, that a more conciliatory president might not have achieved.
The annexation resolution signed by Tyler gave him the choice of asking Texas to approve annexation or reopen negotiations; Tyler sent a messenger to Andrew Jackson Donelson, the United States representative in Texas, choosing the first option. Thus, Polk’s first major decision in office was whether to recall the messenger dispatched by his predecessor.
Polk chose to let the messenger continue on his journey, hoping that Texas would accept the offer. He also sent Congressman Archibald Yell of Arkansas as his personal emissary with assurances from him that the United States would defend Texas, and also that it would settle its southern border on the Rio Grande River, as claimed by Texas, rather than on the Nueces River, as claimed by Mexico. Polk kept Donelson at his post, and Donelson tried to convince Texas leaders to accept the annexation terms proposed by Tyler’s administration. Public sentiment in Texas was in favor of annexation, however some leaders, including President Anson Jones, hoped to negotiate better terms. Britain had offered to negotiate a treaty in which Texas would get recognition of Mexico in exchange for a promise never to annex to another country, but its influential former president Sam Houston, after some consideration, rejected it, as did the Texas Congress.
A convention ratified the annexation in July 1845 and then it was voted on by the people. Polk signed a resolution in December annexing Texas, which became the 28th state. Mexico had broken off relations with the United States in March; the annexation increased tensions, since Mexico had never recognized Texas independence.
Soon after the ratification of the annexation in 1845, both Americans and Mexicans saw a war between the two countries as an inevitable possibility. Polk began preparations for a potential conflict with Mexico through Texas by sending an army led by Brigadier General Zachary Taylor into Texas territory. Taylor and Commodore David Conner of the U.S. Navy, in command of U.S. ships near the Mexican coast, were ordered to avoid provoking a war, while they were to prepare for a conflict and respond to any aggression. Although the president had the military prepare for a clash, he did not believe it would come to that, instead thinking that Mexico would cave under pressure.
Polk hoped that a demonstration of the military might of the United States by Taylor and Conner might avert the war and lead to negotiations with the Mexican government. The president sent diplomat John Slidell later in the year to buy the Santa Fe territories of New Mexico and Alta California from Mexico for somewhere between twenty and forty million dollars, as well as to get an agreement on the Rio Grande border. Slidell arrived in Mexico City in December. President José Joaquín de Herrera did not want to receive him because of public hostilities against the United States. Slidell’s ambassadorial credentials were refused by the Mexican ruling council, with Herrera himself being deposed shortly afterwards by a military coup led by Brigadier General Mariano Paredes y Arrillaga, a hardliner who promised to take back Texas. Dispatches from Slidell to John Black, the US consul in Mexico, made it clear that the United States’ goals of territorial expansion could not be achieved without war.
Taylor’s instructions were to repel Mexican incursions north of the Rio Grande, however his army initially advanced no further than Corpus Christi at the mouth of the Nueces. The president ordered on January 13, 1846 that the general proceed to the Rio Grande, however it was delayed before the march could begin. Polk was convinced that sending Taylor to the strip between the two rivers would cause war; even if it did not occur, he was prepared to ask Congress to declare one. The president, meanwhile, considered supporting a coup led by former president and exiled general Antonio López de Santa Anna in the hope that he would sell off parts of California.
Slidell returned to Washington in May 1846 and presented his opinion that negotiations with the Mexican government were unlikely to succeed. Polk considered the treatment of his diplomat as an insult and a “broad cause for war” and prepared to ask Congress for a formal declaration. Meanwhile, Taylor had reached the Rio Grande in March and his army camped on the opposite side of Heroica Matamoros. The American general began blockading the city the following month after Mexican General Pedro de Ampudia demanded that Taylor return to the Nueces River. A skirmish north of the Rio Grande on April 25 ended with the death or capture of dozens of U.S. soldiers, becoming known as the Thornton Incident. News of the occurrence did not reach Washington until May 9, with Polk immediately convening the cabinet and getting approval for his plan to send a message of war to Congress based on the fact that Mexico had “shed American blood on American soil.” His message was shaped in order to present the conflict as a just and necessary defense of the country against a neighbor that had long inconvenienced the United States.
The House of Representatives passed by a huge majority a resolution declaring war and authorizing the president to accept fifty thousand volunteers into the army. Some of those who voted for it were not convinced that the United States had a just cause to go to war, yet they feared they would be considered unpatriotic. Opponents of the war in the Senate, led by Calhoun, questioned the president’s version of events. Nevertheless, the resolution was passed by the senators by forty votes to two, with Calhoun abstaining, thus marking the beginning of the Mexican-American War.
After some initial skirmishes, Taylor and his army marched away from the river in order to secure a line of supplies, leaving a makeshift base, Fort Texas. Mexican forces under General Mariano Arista attempted to block Taylor’s path while other troops surrounded Fort Texas, forcing the American general to attack if he hoped to be able to rescue the fortification. At the Battle of Palo Alto, the first major confrontation of the war, Taylor’s forces forced Arisca to refuse, suffering only four deaths against hundreds of the Mexicans. The next day the Battle of Resaca de la Palma was fought, in which the US army was again victorious and made the Mexican forces flee. These early successes increased support for the war, which had divided the population despite large margin votes in Congress. Many northern Whigs were against the conflict, as were others who felt that Polk had used patriotism to manipulate the nation into fighting a war whose purpose was to make room for slavery to expand.
Polk did not trust the two most senior officers in the army, Taylor and Major General Winfield Scott, since both were Whigs, but they were not replaced because the President felt that Congress would not approve. He offered Scott the position of high commander, which was accepted. Polk and Scott knew and disliked each other: the president made the appointment even though the general had sought his party’s nomination for the 1840 presidential election. Polk felt that Scott took too long to get his army from Washington to the Rio Grande, becoming infuriated when he discovered that the commander was using his influence in Congress to thwart the government’s plan to expand the number of generals. News of Taylor’s victory at Resaca de la Palma arrived at this time, and the president decided to give field command to Taylor and leave Scott in the capital. Polk also ordered Conner to allow Santa Anna to return to Mexico from his exile in Havana, also sending an expedition led by Stephen W. Kearny to Santa Fe.
Polk feared intervention by the British or French and sent Lieutenant Archibald H. Gillespie to California with the goal of fomenting a pro-United States rebellion that could be used as justification for annexation. Captain John C. Frémont met with Gillespie and led settlers in northern California to overthrow the Mexican garrison at Sonoma in what became known as the Bear Flag Revolt. Forces under Kearny’s command captured Santa Fe in August 1846 without firing a single shot. Almost simultaneously, Commodore Robert F. Stockton landed in Los Angeles and proclaimed the capture of California. The United States effectively took control of the Santa Fe territories of New Mexico and Alta California. The western front even then would prove a headache for Polk, as a dispute between Frémont and Kearny led to a rift between the president and powerful Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, Frémont’s father-in-law.
The initial public euphoria slowly dissipated. Polk asked Congress in August 1846 to appropriate two million dollars as an advance payment for the potential purchase of Mexican land. The president’s request generated opposition, since he had never before revealed his interest in annexing parts of Mexico beyond the lands claimed by Texas. It was unclear whether these lands would hold slaves or be free, and there was a great deal of sectional debate. Representative David Wilmot of Pennsylvania, previously a strong supporter of the government, offered a bill that would ban slavery on any land obtained for money. The money appropriation bill, with Wilmot’s provision, was passed in the House but rejected in the Senate. This disagreement cost the Democratic Party control of the House of Representatives in the 1846 election. Polk still managed early the next year to pass a bill increasing the number of army regiments, then finally approving the appropriation.
U.S. envoy Alexander Slidell Mackenzie met with Santa Anna in July 1846, offering terms under which the United States would pay for the acquisition of San Francisco Bay and other parts of Alta California. Santa Anna was receptive, however, after returning to Mexico and taking over the government, he stated that he would fight the Americans, putting himself in command of the army. This made Polk harden his position on the adversary, ordering a landing in Veracruz, the most important port in the Gulf of Mexico. From there, the troops were to march to Mexico City, something they hoped would end the war. Taylor continued to advance through the northeast and defeated an army led by Ampudia at the Battle of Monterrei in September, but allowed Mexican forces to leave the city, a decision that angered the president. Polk believed that the general had not gone after the enemy aggressively enough, reluctantly offering Scott command of the expedition to Veracruz.
The lack of trust Polk had in Taylor was reciprocated, with the general fearing that the president was trying to destroy him. Therefore, Taylor disobeyed his orders to remain in Monterrei. Polk discovered in March 1847 that Taylor had continued to march south, capturing the city of Saltillo. The general continued and then decimated a larger Mexican force led by Santa Anna at the Battle of Buena Vista. Mexican casualties were five times higher than American casualties, with the victory making Taylor a military hero in the public eye, however the president preferred to give credit to the bravery of the soldiers rather than the general. Scott landed in Veracruz and quickly took control of the city. Polk dispatched Nicholas Trist, Buchanan’s attendant, to accompany Scott and negotiate a peace treaty with the Mexican leaders. Trist was instructed to seek the cession of Alta California, Santa Fe of New Mexico and Baja California, recognition of the Rio Grande as the border with Texas, and United States access to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Trist was authorized to make a payment of up to thirty million dollars for these concessions.
Scott defeated Santa Anna in August at the Battle of Contreras and then at the Battle of Churubusco. Trist, with the Americans close to Mexico City, began negotiating with the commissioners, however the Mexicans were unwilling to surrender. Scott prepared to take the capital, doing so in September. A heated political debate arose in the United States over how much of Mexico should be annexed, with whigs like Clay suggesting that the country should seek to resolve only the Texas border issue, while some expansionists called for the annexation of all of Mexico. Opponents of the war were also active; Representative Abraham Lincoln of Illinois introduced the “exact place” resolutions, asking Polk to state exactly where American blood had been spilled on United States soil to start the war, however the chamber refused to consider the proposal.
Polk was frustrated by the lack of progress in negotiations and ordered Trist to return to Washington, however the diplomat chose to remain, writing a long letter to the president in December 1847 explaining his decision. Polk considered making Trist leave Mexico City and return to the United States by force. The president was insulted by his diplomat’s action, but allowed him to remain in Mexico for some time to try to negotiate a treaty.
Trist met regularly in January 1848 with officials in Mexico City, however the signing of a treaty took place in the small village of Guadalupe Hidalgo at the request of the Mexicans. Trist was willing to allow Mexico to keep Baja California, as he was allowed to do, however he was able to keep the inclusion of the important port of San Diego in the cession of Alta California. The provisions included the border on the Rio Grande and a payment of fifteen million dollars to Mexico. Trist and a Mexican delegation signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on February 2, 1848. Polk received the document on the 19th and, after the cabinet met the next day, decided that he had no option but to accept it. If he refused it, with the chamber controlled by the Whigs, there was no guarantee that Congress would vote to continue the war. Buchanan and Walker disagreed as they wanted more land, a position the president was sympathetic to, but considered the action motivated by the ambition of his Secretary of State.
Some senators were against the treaty as they did not want to take any Mexican territory, while others hesitated because of the uneven nature of Trist’s negotiations. Polk waited in suspense for two weeks as the senate evaluated, sometimes hearing that it would probably be defeated and that Buchanan and Walker were working against the government. He was relieved to hear that his two secretaries were defending the treaty. The Senate ratified the document on March 10 by a 38 to fourteen vote, a vote that followed along party and geographical lines. The senate made some modifications to the treaty before approving it, with the president becoming concerned that Mexico would reject it. Polk learned on June 7 that the Mexicans would approve it. He declared that the treaty would take effect on July 4, 1848, thus ending the war. With the acquisition of Alta California, Polk then achieved all four of his goals of government. The territorial expansions during his presidency, with the exception of the Gadsden Purchase in 1853, established the modern borders of the contiguous United States.
Polk was eager to establish a territorial government in Oregon as soon as the treaty went into effect in 1846, but the issue was wrapped up in arguments about slavery, even though few felt Oregon was suitable for the institution. A bill to establish a territorial government passed the House after being amended to bar slavery, but died in the Senate when opponents delayed the vote long enough to reach the end of the congressional session. A new bill, still banning slavery, resurfaced and was again passed by the chamber in January of the following year, but was not considered by the senate until congress went into recess in March. California and New Mexico were already U.S. territories when Congress returned in December, with Polk calling in his annual message for the establishment of territorial governments in all three.
The Missouri Compromise of 1820 had settled the issue of the geographical scope of slavery within the Louisiana Purchase territories by prohibiting institution above latitude 36°10′, with Polk wanting to extend that line into the newly acquired territories of Mexico. If extended to the Pacific, this would make slavery illegal in San Francisco, but would be allowed in Monterey and Los Angeles. A plan to achieve this goal was defeated in the chamber by a bipartisan alliance of Northerners. The last congressional session before the 1848 election ended and the only thing the president was able to sign was a bill passed by congress that established the Oregon Territory and prohibited slavery on its borders.
When Congress reconvened in December, Polk again called for the establishment of territorial governments in California and New Mexico, a task made all the more urgent by the onset of the Gold Rush. The divisive nature of slavery barred any legislation, but action continued until the last hours of Polk’s term. A bill was amended to have Mexico’s laws apply to the territories until Congress amended them, thus outlawing slavery, however the president made it clear that he would veto it, considering Wilmot’s provision with new clothes. It was only with the Compromise of 1850 that the issue was resolved.
Benjamin Alden Bidlack, the ambassador to the Republic of New Grenada, negotiated the Mallarino-Bidlack Treaty. Although Bidlack initially sought only the reduction of taxes on U.S. goods, he and Manuel María Mallarino, the Grenadian Foreign Minister, negotiated a broader agreement that strengthened military and commercial ties between the two countries. The treaty also allowed the construction of the Panama Railroad, giving the United States a faster travel route between its two coasts. In return, the Americans promised to guarantee New Grenada’s sovereignty over the Isthmus of Panama. The treaty was ratified in 1848 and helped establish greater American influence in the region, as Polk’s government wanted to prevent Britain from dominating Central America. The United States would subsequently for the remainder of the 19th century use its rights under the Mallarino-Bidlack Treaty as justification for military interventions in Latin America.
Polk authorized Romulus Mitchell Saunders, his ambassador to Spain, to negotiate the purchase of Cuba and offer the Spanish up to one hundred million dollars, an exorbitant amount at the time for a single territory. Cuba was close to the United States and had slavery, so the idea was attractive to Southerners and unpopular with Northerners. However, Spain was still able to generate profit from Cuba, mainly from the sale of sugar, molasses, rum and tobacco, so the Spanish government rejected Saunders’ attempts. Although Polk wanted to acquire the island, he refused to support the expedition of Narciso López, who wanted to invade and take Cuba as a prelude to annexation.
Polk asked Congress in his inaugural speech for the re-establishment of an Independent Treasury System under which government funds would be held in the public treasury and not in banks or other financial institutions. Van Buren during his presidency had established a similar system, but it was abolished during Tyler’s administration. Polk made his opposition to a national bank clear in his inaugural speech, calling for the government to keep its funds to itself in his first annual message to congress in December 1845. Congress was slow to take action; the House passed a bill in April 1846 and the Senate in August, both without a single Whig vote. The president signed the Independent Treasury Act on August 6, 1846. The law dictated that public revenues were to be held in the Treasury Building and in sub-treasuries in various cities, separate from private or state banks. The system would remain in operation until the passage of the Federal Reserve Act in 1913.
Polk’s other major internal initiative was a tax cut. He instructed Walker, his Secretary of the Treasury, to draft new taxes, which were presented to Congress. The bill passed the chamber after much discussion, with the Senate also approving it in July 1846 after a tied vote that had to be decided by Vice President Dallas. The latter, despite coming from protectionist Pennsylvania, voted for it because he thought his best political prospects would be with an alignment with the government. Polk signed the Walker Tariff, substantially reducing the rates established by the Tariff of 1842. The reduction of taxes in the United States and the abolition of the Grain Laws in the United Kingdom led to a great increase in Anglo-American trade.
Congress passed the Rivers and Harbors Bill in 1846 to provide five hundred thousand dollars to improve port facilities, but Polk vetoed it. He believed the bill was unconstitutional because it unfairly favored specific areas, including ports with no international trade. The president considered internal improvements to be a matter for the states, fearing that ratification of the bill would encourage legislators to compete for favors for their districts – something that would corrupt the virtue of the republic. In this he followed Jackson, who had in 1830 vetoed the Maysville Highway Bill on similar grounds.
Polk opposed the use of federal money for internal improvements out of conviction, staunchly resisting against any such bill. Congress passed another internal improvements bill in 1847; the president ignored it until sanction time expired and sent a full veto message to congress when it met in December. Similar bills continued to roll through congress the following year, but none ever passed. When he went to Capitol Hill to sign bills on March 3, 1849, his last day in office, he was so fearful that an internal improvement bill had been passed that he took the draft of a veto message with him. No such bill was passed, but Polk, who thought his draft had been cleverly written, preserved it among his papers.
Reliable news of the discovery of gold in California did not reach Washington until after the election of 1848, by which time Polk no longer wielded as much political influence. His opponents had claimed that California was too far away to be useful, that it was not worth the price paid to Mexico. The president marveled at the news, seeing it as a validation of his expansionist position and talking about the discovery several times during his last annual message to Congress in December. Samples of the California gold arrived shortly thereafter, with Polk sending a special message to congress on the subject. The message, which confirmed less reliable reports, caused many people to leave for the distant territory, both Americans and foreigners, helping to start the California Gold Rush.
One of his last acts as president was to sign a bill creating a Department of the Interior. This was the first cabinet position created since the early years of the United States. Polk was afraid that the federal government might usurp public lands from the states. Still, delivering the legislation on his last full day in office did not give him time to find constitutional grounds for a veto, or even draft a sufficient veto message, so he signed the bill.
The death of Henry Baldwin, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, in 1844 opened a vacancy on the court, but Tyler was unable to get the Senate to confirm any of his nominees. It was customary at the time to maintain a geographical balance within the Supreme Court, and Baldwin was from Pennsylvania. Polk’s attempts to fill the vacancy caught up with Pennsylvania politicking and the efforts of factional leaders to secure the lucrative position of Collector of Customs for the Port of Philadelphia. Another vacancy arose in September 1845 with the death of Joseph Story, while the President was still trying to get through Pennsylvania politics; his replacement was also expected to come from his native New England. Polk was able to make a recess appointment since the Senate was not meeting at the time, choosing Senator Levi Woodbury of New Hampshire, with the latter later confirmed when the Senate returned in December. George Washington Woodward, the president’s original nomination for Baldwin’s seat, was rejected in January 1846, primarily due to opposition from Buchanan and Senator Simon Cameron.
Although Polk was furious with Buchanan, he eventually offered the vacancy to the Secretary of State who, after some indecision, declined. The president then nominated Robert Cooper Grier, who was confirmed in early August. however Grier served on the Supreme Court until 1870 and in the 1857 slavery case Dred Scott v. Sandford wrote an opinion stating that slaves were property and could not launch lawsuits. In addition to the two judicial associates, Polk also appointed eight federal judges: one to the United States Circuit Court for the District of Columbia Circuit and seven to various district courts.
Polk declined to seek re-election, fulfilling his promise made during the 1844 campaign to serve for only one term. At the 1848 Democratic National Convention, Cass led all the votes but did not get the two-thirds needed for the nomination until the fourth round. Former Federal Congressman William Orlando Butler of Kentucky, who had replaced Scott as the commanding general of the army in Mexico City, was chosen for the vice-presidential nomination. The Whig National Convention nominated General Taylor for president and former Federal Congressman Millard Fillmore of New York for vice president.
New York Democrats were still resentful over what they saw as distasteful treatment of Van Buren in 1844, with the former president having distanced himself from the party in the meantime. Many members of Van Buren’s faction were young men who vehemently opposed the expansion of slavery, a position he came to agree with in 1844. Cass was a great expansionist, and slavery could find new places to flourish under a presidency of his; Van Buren’s supporters abandoned the Democratic convention when Cass’s nomination was confirmed. They held a convention of their own in June, attended by anti-slavery politicians from other states, and nominated Van Buren for president. Polk was surprised and disappointed by the conversion of his former ally, becoming concerned about the division that a sectional party organized around abolitionism would bring. The president made no speech in favor of Cass, staying in his White House office. He removed some of Van Buren’s supporters from federal office during the campaign.
Taylor won the election with 47.3% of the popular vote and a majority of 163 in the electoral college. Cass took 42.5% of the vote, while Van Buren had 10.1% of the popular vote, with much of his support coming from northern Democrats. Polk was disappointed by the result because he had a poor opinion of Taylor, viewing the general as someone with poor judgment and few opinions on important political issues. Nevertheless, the president kept to tradition and welcomed the president-elect to Washington by holding a gala dinner at the White House. Polk left the presidential mansion on March 3, 1849, leaving an empty table, but worked from his hotel and the Capitol on last-minute appointments and approvals. He attended Taylor’s inauguration ceremony on March 5 and wished the new president the best, even if not enthusiastically.
Polk’s time in the White House took a heavy toll on his health. He came into office full of vigor and enthusiasm, but his years of public service left him completely exhausted. The now former president left Washington on March 6 for a pre-arranged triumphal tour of the South that would end in Nashville. Polk had two years earlier managed to buy a house in the city, thereafter called the Polk Site, which had previously belonged to his former mentor Felix Grundy.
Polk and Sarah progressed up the Atlantic coast and then headed west through the Deep South. They were greeted with banquets and great displays of enthusiasm. He was suffering from a severe cold when they arrived in Alabama, and was soon worried by reports of cholera – a passenger on the Polk’s steamboat had died of the disease and it was rumored to be common in New Orleans, but it was too late to change plans. The former president, concerned about his health, would have left the city quickly, but was overwhelmed by the hospitality of Louisiana. Several of the steamboat passengers had already died of cholera by then, and Polk felt so ill that he had to spend four days resting in a hotel. A doctor assured him that he did not have the disease, so he went on for the final leg of the trip and arrived in Nashville on April 2, meeting a great reception.
The couple visited Polk’s mother in Columbia and then settled at the Polk Site. The former president seemed to have gained new life, however he fell ill again in June, of cholera by most accounts. Several doctors attended him and he persisted for days, choosing to be baptized in the Methodist Church, which he had long admired, however his mother arrived in Nashville with an Episcopalian clergyman, with his wife also being an Episcopalian. Polk died on June 15, 1849; his last words, according to the most traditional accounts, were, “I love you, Sarah, for all eternity, I love you.” Borneman commented that regardless of whether those words were spoken, there was nothing in Polk’s life that would make that sentiment false.
Polk had a post-presidency of only 103 days, the shortest among all presidents who did not die in office. His funeral was held at McKendree Methodist Church in Nashville. He was initially buried in the Nashville City Cemetery because of a court requirement related to his infectious disease. His remains were moved the following year to a tomb in the gardens of the Polk Site. Sarah lived in the house for another 42 years until she died on August 14, 1891. Polk and Sarah’s bodies were relocated in 1893 to their current resting place on the grounds of the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville. The Polk Site was demolished in 1900. The Tennessee Senate passed a resolution in March 2017 considered a “first step” for the Polk remains to be moved to the family’s ancestral home in Columbia; in addition to support from state legislators, such action also needs approval from the courts and the Tennessee Historical Commission.
Polk was a slave owner for most of his adult life. His father, Samuel Polk, left his son in 1827 over 20 square miles of land, dividing approximately 53 slaves between his widow and children in his will. Polk inherited twenty of his father’s slaves, both directly and from dead brothers. He became an absentee cotton farmer in 1831, sending slaves to tend a plantation his father left him near Somerville. Polk sold this plantation four years later and, together with his brother-in-law, bought 3.7 square kilometers of a cotton plantation near Coffeeville, Mississippi, hoping to increase his income. This land was richer than that in Somerville, with Polk moving his slaves there from Tennessee, taking care to hide from them the fact that they were being sent south. He bought out his brother-in-law’s share in 1839 and owned the entire Mississippi plantation, managing it virtually absent for the rest of his life. He occasionally visited there; for example, he spent much of April 1844 at the plantation, just before the Democratic convention.
He bought five more slaves in 1831, mostly from Kentucky, spending a total of $1870; the youngest had a stated age of eleven. Since older children sold for higher prices, sellers often lied about their ages. Polk bought five others between 1834 and 1835, ranging in age from two to 37, with the youngest being the granddaughter of the oldest. The total spent was $2250. Eight new slaves were purchased in 1839 from his brother William Polk at a cost of $5,600. They were three young adults and almost an entire family, but without their father, whom Polk had once owned and sold to a merchant because he was considered a chronic runaway.
The expenses of four political campaigns (three for governor and one for president) in six years prevented Polk from buying more slaves until after he was already in the White House. At the time, the presidential salary was expected to cover only the salaries of the White House staff, but Polk replaced them with slaves from his home in Tennessee. He did not buy any slaves with money from his salary, probably for political reasons. Instead, he invested the income from his plantation in the purchase of more slaves, requesting secrecy from his agent: “as my personal affairs do not concern the public, you will keep this matter to yourself.
Polk saw his plantation as the means of ensuring a comfortable existence for himself and his wife after his presidency; he had no intention of returning to practicing law. He purchased, through an agent, seven more slaves in 1846, ranging in age from twelve to seventeen, hoping that the increased labor force would bring him more income in retirement. The seventeen-year-old slave and one of the twelve-year-olds were bought together at an auction; the agent sold the younger one a few weeks later to generate more profit. The president bought nine more slaves the following year. Three were bought from Gideon Pillow, with his agent buying the other six, aged between ten and twenty. The war against Mexico had already begun by the time of Pillow’s purchase, with Polk sending payment along with a letter offering Pillow a commission in the army. This purchase was of a slave that he had owned before but was sold for causing too much trouble. None of the slaves Polk bought as president, all under twenty years of age, came with a father. In the one case where two slaves were bought together, it is unlikely that they were brothers.
Discipline for Polk’s slaves varied over time. He employed a foreman named Herbert Biles, who was said to be relatively lenient. Biles fell ill in 1833 and was replaced by Ephraim Beanland, who tightened discipline and increased work. Polk supported his new foreman by returning runaway slaves who complained of beatings and other harsh treatment, “even with every report suggesting that the foreman was a ruthless brute.” Beanland was hired for the Mississippi plantation, however he was soon dismissed by Polk’s partner, who considered him too harsh as the slaves were performing the arduous task of clearing trees for the cotton plantation. His replacement was dismissed after a year for being too lenient, while the next one died of dysentery in 1839. Others came, but it was not until 1845 that a satisfactory foreman was found, John Mairs, who remained in the post for the remainder of Polk’s life and was still working on the plantation for Sarah in 1860, when she sold half of many of her slaves. There were constant runaways under Mairs’ predecessors, with many seeking protection on the plantations of Polk’s relatives or friends; only one slave ran away between Mairs’ hiring and 1847, but the foreman had to report three missing in 1848 and 1849.
Polk’s will, dated February 28, 1849, a few days before the end of his presidency, contained the non-binding clause that his slaves were to be freed after his and his wife’s death. Mississippi plantation was expected to support Sarah during her widowhood. She lived until 1891, however the slaves were freed in 1865 by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery throughout the United States. Since Sarah had sold half of her interest in the slaves in 1860, she had given up holding the sole power to free them, and it was unlikely that her business partner, who paid a total of $28,500 for half of her interest in the slaves, would have allowed them to go free had slavery still been legal.
Polk, like Jackson, viewed slavery as a marginal political issue when compared to other issues such as territorial expansion and fiscal policy. Slavery became increasingly polarized in the 1840s, with Polk’s expansionist policies exacerbating its divisiveness. Many abolitionists criticized Polk during his presidency, describing him as an instrument of the “Slavocracy,” claiming that the spread of slavery was why he supported the annexation of Texas and then the war against Mexico. Polk actually supported expanding the reach of slavery, with his views being influenced by his family’s experiences of settling in Tennessee and bringing slaves with them. He believed in the right of southerners, both the right of slaveholding states not to have the federal government interfere with the institution, and the right of individual southerners to bring their slaves with them into the new territories. Although Polk was against the Wilmot Provision, he was also critical of Southern agitation on the issue, and was accused by both Northerners and Southerners for trying to use slavery for political gain.
Polk’s historical reputation after his death was initially formed by the attacks made on him during his lifetime. Whig politicians claimed that he was destined for a deserved obscurity. Sam Houston is said to have commented that Polk, a teetotaler, was “a victim of the use of water as a drink.” Little has been published about him other than two biographies released shortly after his death. Polk was not the subject of a major biography again until 1922, when Eugene I. McCormac published James K. Polk: A Political Biography. McCormac relied heavily on Polk’s presidential diary, which had first been published in 1909. When historians began to evaluate presidents in 1948, Polk was ranked tenth on Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr.’s list of the best. After that he appeared eighth on Schlesinger’s 1962 list, eleventh on Riders-McIver’s 1996 list, and fourteenth in a survey done by C-SPAN in 2017.
Walter R. Borneman considered Polk the most effective president in the pre-Secession War period, commenting on how he expanded the power of the presidency, especially his power as commander in chief and his oversight of the Executive Branch. Steven G. Calabresi and Christopher Yoo, in their history of presidential power, praised Polk’s conduct of the Mexican-American War, writing that “it seems unquestionable that his management of affairs of state during the conflict was one of the greatest examples since Jackson of the use of presidential power to specifically direct the conduct of subordinate officers.”
Harry S. Truman stated that Polk was “a great president. He said what he wanted to do and he did it.” Paul H. Bergeron pointed out that the issues Polk resolved remained so for a long time. The banking system and taxes, which he had named as two of the major points of his presidency, were not significantly revised until the 1860s. Similarly, the Gadsden Purchase and the Alaska Purchase in 1867 were the country’s only major territorial expansions until the 1890s.
Bergeron, in his study of Polk’s presidency, wrote that “Virtually everyone remembers Polk for his expansionist successes. He produced a new map of the United States that realized a continental vision.” Robert W. Merry said that “To look at that map and take the western and southwestern expansions included in it, is to see the magnitude of Polk’s presidential accomplishments.” Amy Greenberg, in her history of the Mexican-American War, thought the president’s legacy was more than territorial: “during a single brilliant term, he accomplished a feat that previous presidents would have considered impossible. With the help of his wife Sarah, he planned, provoked, and successfully conducted a war that transformed the United States into a world power.” Borneman commented that Polk, in conquering this expansion, did not consider the effect it would have on Mexicans and Native Americans: “Ignorance may well be debated on moral grounds, yet it cannot diminish incredible political achievements.” James A. Rawley wrote that “he added extensive territories to the United States, including Alta California and its valuable ports, and left the legacy of a nation poised in the Pacific circle prepared to emerge in future generations as a superpower.
Historians have also criticized Polk for failing to realize that his territorial gains would lead to civil war. Pletcher stated that the president, like others of his era, failed “to understand that sectionalism and expansion had formed a new and explosive compound.” Fred I. Greenstein wrote that Polk “lacked a keen awareness of the problems that were about to arise over the slavery situation in the territories acquired from Mexico.” William Dusinberre suggested that “the deep personal involvement Polk had with the slave plantation system … defined his position on issues related to slavery.”
Greenberg pointed out how Polk’s war served as training for the War of Secession:
- James K. Polk
- James K. Polk
- a b c Borneman 2008, p. 6
- Haynes 1997, pp. 4–6
- Byrnes 2001, p. 13, 14 et 95.
- Byrnes 2001, p. 187.
- a et b Borneman 2008, p. 6.
- Haynes 1997, p. 4 à 6.
- a b c Borneman, p. 6
- Haynes, pp. 4–6.
- ^ POLK, James Knox, su treccani.it. URL consultato il 13 giugno 2022.