|James K. Polk|
Daguerreotype of Polk attributed to "Mathew Brady, 1849
|11th "President of the United States|
March 4, 1845 – March 4, 1849
|"Vice President||"George M. Dallas|
|Preceded by||"John Tyler|
|Succeeded by||"Zachary Taylor|
|9th "Governor of Tennessee|
October 14, 1839 – October 15, 1841
|Preceded by||"Newton Cannon|
|Succeeded by||"James C. Jones|
|13th "Speaker of the United States House of Representatives|
December 7, 1835 – March 3, 1839
|Preceded by||"John Bell|
|Succeeded by||"Robert M. T. Hunter|
|Member of the "U.S. House of Representatives
from "Tennessee's "9th district
March 4, 1833 – March 3, 1839
|Preceded by||"William Fitzgerald|
|Succeeded by||"Harvey Magee Watterson|
|Member of the "U.S. House of Representatives
from "Tennessee's "6th district
March 4, 1825 – March 3, 1833
|Preceded by||"John Alexander Cocke|
|Succeeded by||"Balie Peyton|
|Chair of the "House Ways and Means Committee|
|Preceded by||"Gulian Verplanck|
|Succeeded by||"Churchill Cambreleng|
|Born||James Knox Polk
November 2, 1795
"Pineville, North Carolina, U.S.
|Died||June 15, 1849
"Nashville, Tennessee, U.S.
|Resting place||"Tennessee State Capitol, Nashville, Tennessee|
|Spouse(s)||"Sarah Childress (m. 1824)|
|"Alma mater||"University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill|
|Nickname(s)||Young Hickory, Napoleon of the Stump|
|Service/branch||"Tennessee State Militia|
|Unit||5th Brigade Cavalry Regiment|
James Knox Polk (November 2, 1795 – June 15, 1849) was an American politician who served as the "11th President of the United States (1845–1849). He previously was elected the 13th "Speaker of the House of Representatives (1835–1839) and "Governor of Tennessee (1839–1841). As a protégé of "Andrew Jackson, Polk was a member of the "Democratic Party and an advocate of "Jacksonian democracy and "Manifest Destiny. During his presidency, the United States expanded significantly with the "annexation of the "Republic of Texas, the "Oregon Treaty, and the close of the "Mexican-American War.
After building a successful law practice in Tennessee, Polk was elected to the state legislature (1823) and then to the United States House of Representatives in 1825. He served as the Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1835 to 1839, and was the only president to have also served as Speaker. Polk left Congress to serve as Governor of Tennessee from 1839 to 1841, then lost re-election as governor in 1840, and lost the same election in 1842. He was a "dark horse candidate for president in "1844, when he entered his party’s convention as a nominee for vice president; nevertheless, he won the presidential nomination as a compromise candidate among various party factions. In the general election, he defeated "Henry Clay of the rival "Whig Party, primarily due to his promise to annex the Republic of Texas.
Polk is considered by many the last exceptional president of the pre–"Civil War era, having met during his four-year term every major domestic and foreign policy goal set during his campaign and transition to office. After threatening war, he reached a settlement with the "United Kingdom over the "disputed "Oregon Country, whereby the territory was divided along the 49th parallel. Polk achieved a sweeping victory in the Mexican–American War, which resulted in the cession by Mexico of nearly all the "American Southwest. He ensured a substantial reduction of "tariff rates with the "Walker tariff of 1846, which pleased the less-industrialized southern states through less expensive imported and domestic goods. He also re-established the "Independent Treasury System, oversaw the opening of the "United States Naval Academy and the "Smithsonian Institution, the groundbreaking for the "Washington Monument, and the issuance of the first United States "postage stamp. True to his campaign pledge to serve only one term, Polk left office in 1849 and returned to Tennessee; he died of "cholera three months afterwards.
Scholars have "ranked him favorably for his ability to promote and achieve the major items on his presidential agenda. However, he has also been criticized for leading the country into war against Mexico and for exacerbating sectional divides.
James Knox Polk, the first of ten children, was born on November 2, 1795 in a "log house in what is now "Pineville, North Carolina, in "Mecklenburg County, to a family of farmers. His father Samuel Polk was a slaveholder, successful farmer, and "surveyor of "Scots-Irish descent. His mother Jane Polk named her firstborn after her father James Knox. The Polks had migrated to America in the late 1600s, settling initially on the "Eastern Shore of "Chesapeake Bay, then in south-central Pennsylvania and eventually moving to the Carolina hill country.
Like many early Scots-Irish settlers in the North Carolina, the Knox and Polk families were "Presbyterian. While Polk's mother remained a devout Presbyterian, his father, whose own father "Ezekiel Polk was a "deist, rejected dogmatic Presbyterianism. When the parents took young James to a Presbyterian church to be baptized, Samuel refused to declare his belief in Christianity, and the minister refused to baptize the child. Despite this omission, according to James A. Rawley in his "American National Biography article on Polk, "his mother stamped her rigid orthodoxy on James, instilling lifelong Calvinistic traits of self-discipline, hard work, piety, individualism, and a belief in the imperfection of human nature. She also shared her own deep interest in politics."
In 1803, Ezekiel Polk, the future president's grandfather, led four of his adult children and their families to the "Duck River area in current "Maury County, Middle Tennessee in search of new lands to settle. Once the trek had proven successful, Samuel Polk and his family followed in 1806. The Polk clan dominated politics in Maury County and in the new town of "Columbia. Samuel became a county judge, and the guests at his home included "Andrew Jackson, who had by then served as a judge and in Congress. Samuel Polk died in 1827; his widow lived until 1852, surviving her oldest son by three years.
The young James Polk suffered from frail health, a disadvantage in a frontier society. In 1812, Samuel Polk decided to take his oldest son to be seen by Dr. "Philip Syng Physick, a prominent Philadelphia physician, for "urinary stones. The journey was broken off by James' severe pain, and Dr. "Ephraim McDowell of "Danville, Kentucky operated to remove them. No anesthetic but brandy was available, and though the operation was successful, it may have left James sterile, as he had no children. James Polk recovered quickly, and became more robust. His father offered to bring James into one of his businesses, but the young man wanted an education, and enrolled at a Presbyterian academy in 1813. In July of that year, Polk became a member of the "Zion Church near his home, and enrolled in its academy. A year later he entered Bradley Academy in "Murfreesboro where Polk proved a promising student, and where he may have met his future wife, "Sarah Childress.
In January 1816 Polk was admitted into the "University of North Carolina as a second-semester "sophomore. The Polk family had connections with the university, then a small school of about 80 students—Samuel Polk was its land agent in Tennessee and his cousin "William Polk was a trustee. Polk's roommate "William Dunn Moseley became the first governor of Florida. While there Polk joined the "Dialectic Society where he took part in debates, became its president and learned the art of oratory. Polk graduated with honors in May 1818. The University later named the lower quad on its main campus, Polk Place.
After his college graduation, Polk moved to "Nashville, to "study law under renowned trial attorney "Felix Grundy, who became Polk's first mentor. On September 20, 1819 Polk, with Grundy's endorsement, was elected clerk of the "Tennessee State Senate, to which Grundy had been elected. Polk was re-elected clerk in 1821 without opposition, and continued to serve until 1822. In June 1820 Polk was "admitted to the Tennessee bar. His first case was to defend his father against a public fighting charge—he secured his release for a one-dollar fine. Polk opened an office in Maury County and  was successful as a lawyer, in large part due to the many cases arising from the "Panic of 1819, a severe depression. His law practice subsidized his political career.
By the time the legislature adjourned its session in September 1822, Polk was determined to be a candidate for the "Tennessee House of Representatives. The election was in August 1823, almost a year away, allowing him ample time for campaigning, Already involved locally as a member of the Masons, he was commissioned in the Tennessee militia as a captain in the cavalry regiment of the 5th Brigade. He was later appointed a colonel on the staff of Governor "William Carroll, and was afterwards often referred to as “Colonel”. Although many of the voters were members of the Polk clan, the young politician campaigned energetically. Polk's oratory became popular, earning him the nickname "Napoleon of the Stump." At the polls, where Polk provided alcoholic refreshments for his voters, he defeated incumbent William Yancey.
Polk courted "Sarah Childress—they married on January 1, 1824 in Murfreesboro. No children were born of the marriage. During James's political career Sarah assisted her husband with his speeches, gave him advice on policy matters, and played an active role in his campaigns. Educated far better than most women of her time, especially in frontier Tennessee, Sarah Polk was from one of the state's most prominent families. Her grace, intelligence and charming conversation would compensate for her husband's often austere manner.
Polk's first mentor was Grundy, but in the legislature, Polk came increasingly to oppose him on such matters as land reform. and came to support the policies of Andrew Jackson, by then a military hero for his victory at the "Battle of New Orleans (1815). Jackson was a family friend to both the Polks and the Childresses—there is evidence Sarah Polk and her siblings called him "Uncle Andrew"—and James Polk quickly came to support his presidential ambitions for 1824. These plans required winning the Senate seat the "Tennessee Legislature would fill in 1823 (until 1913, legislators elected U.S. senators, not the people) and Polk broke from his usual allies, casting his vote as a member of the state House of Representatives for the general in Jackson's victory. Thus began an alliance, that would continue until Jackson's death early in Polk's presidency.
In the "1824 U.S. presidential election, Jackson got the most electoral votes (he also led in the popular vote) but as he did not receive a majority of them, the election was thrown into the "U.S. House of Representatives, which chose Secretary of State "John Quincy Adams, who had received the second-most of each. Polk, like other Jackson supporters, believed that Speaker of the House "Henry Clay had thrown his support as fourth-place finisher (the House may only choose from among the top three) to Adams in a "Corrupt Bargain in exchange for being the new Secretary of State. Polk had in August 1824 declared his candidacy for the following year's election for the House of Representatives from "Tennessee's 6th congressional district. The district stretched from Maury County south to the Alabama line, and extensive electioneering was expected of the five candidates. Polk campaigned so vigorously that Sarah began to worry about his health. During the campaign, Polk's opponents said that at the age of 29 Polk was too young for the responsibility of a seat in the House, but he won the election with 3,669 votes out of 10,440 and took his seat in Congress later that year.
When Polk arrived in "Washington, D.C. for Congress's regular session in December 1825, he roomed in Benjamin Burch's boarding house with some other Tennessee representatives, including "Sam Houston. Polk made his first major speech on March 13, 1826, in which he said that the "Electoral College should be abolished and that the president should be elected by popular vote. Remaining bitter at the alleged Corrupt Bargain between Adams and Clay, Polk became a vocal critic of the "administration, frequently voting against its policies. Sarah Polk remained at home in Columbia during her husband's first year in Congress, but accompanied him to Washington beginning in December 1826; she assisted him with his correspondence, and came to hear James's speeches.
Polk won re-election in 1827 and continued to oppose the Adams administration. He remained in close touch with General Jackson, exchanging lengthy letters at a time when both men were busy, Polk with congressional work, and Jackson preparing another run for president. In "1828, Jackson ran for President again and Polk was a corresponding advisor on his campaign. Following Jackson's victory in the 1828 election, Polk became one of Jackson's most important and loyal supporters in the House.
On Jackson's behalf, Polk successfully opposed federally-funded ""internal improvements" such as a proposed Buffalo-to-New Orleans road, and he was pleased by Jackson's "Maysville Road veto in May 1830, in which Jackson blocked a bill to finance a road extension entirely within one state, Kentucky, deeming it unconstitutional. The veto message, which strongly complained of Congress's penchant for passing "pork barrel projects, may have been written by Polk, though he always denied this, stating that the message was entirely Jackson's.
Polk served as Jackson's most prominent House ally in the ""Bank War" that developed over Jackson's opposition to the re-authorization of the "Second Bank of the United States. The Second Bank, headed by "Nicholas Biddle of Philadelphia, not only held federal dollars, but controlled much of the credit in the United States, as it could present currency issued by local banks for redemption in gold or silver. Some Westerners, including Jackson, opposed the Second Bank, deeming it a monopoly acting in the interest of Easterners. Polk, as a member of the "House Ways and Means Committee, conducted investigations of the Second Bank, and though the committee voted for a bill to renew the bank's charter (scheduled to expire in 1836), Polk issued a strong minority report condemning the bank. The bill passed Congress in 1832, but Jackson vetoed it and Congress failed to override the veto. Jackson's action had wide public support, and he won easy re-election in 1832. In 1833, after being elected to a fifth consecutive term, Polk became the chairman of Ways and Means, a powerful position in the House.
During the "Nullification Crisis of 1832–33, Polk initially sympathized with "John C. Calhoun's opposition to the "Tariff of Abominations, but came over to Jackson's side as Calhoun moved towards advocating secession. Thereafter, Polk remained loyal to Jackson as the President sought to assert federal authority. Polk condemned secession and supported the "Force Bill against South Carolina, which had claimed the authority to nullify federal tariffs. The matter was settled by Congress passing a "compromise tariff.
As Ways and Means chair from December 1833, Polk supported Jackson's withdrawal of federal funds from the Second Bank. Polk's committee issued a report questioning the Second Bank's finances, and another supporting Jackson's actions against it. In April 1834, the Ways and Means Committee reported a bill to regulate state deposit banks, which, when passed, enabled Jackson to deposit funds in "pet banks, and got legislation passed to allow the sale of the government's stock in the Second Bank.
In June 1834, Speaker of the House "Andrew Stevenson resigned from Congress. With Jackson's support, Polk ran for Speaker against fellow Tennessean "John Bell, Calhoun devotee "Richard Henry Wilde, and "Joel Barlow Sutherland of Pennsylvania. After ten ballots, Bell, who had the support of many opponents of the administration, defeated Polk. This marked the beginning of an anti-Jacksonian backlash in Tennessee, led by Bell and Senator "Hugh Lawson White, both former allies of Jackson. Jackson called in political markers to try to get Polk elected Speaker at the start of the next Congress in December 1835, assuring his disciple in a letter he meant Polk to burn that New England would support Polk for Speaker. They were successful, Polk defeated Bell to take the Speakership.
According to Thomas M. Leonard in his book on Polk, "by 1836, while serving as Speaker of the House of Representatives, Polk approached the zenith of his congressional career. He was at the center of "Jacksonian Democracy on the House floor, and, with the help of his wife, he ingratiated himself into Washington's social circles." Although the Polks remained childless, they were rearing the children of James' three deceased brothers. The prestige of the Speakership caused them to abandon life in a Washington boarding house for their own residence on Pennsylvania Avenue. In the "1836 presidential election, Vice President "Martin Van Buren, Jackson's chosen successor, defeated multiple "Whig candidates, including Hugh Lawson White.
As Speaker, Polk worked for the policies of Jackson and later Van Buren. Polk appointed committees with Democratic chairs and majorities, including the New York radical "C. C. Cambreleng as Chair of the "Ways and Means Committee, although he maintained the facade of traditional bipartisanship. The two major issues during Polk's speakership were slavery and, after the "Panic of 1837, the economy. Polk took advantage of the ""gag rule" to quiet the slavery debate within the House. Van Buren and Polk faced pressure to rescind the "Specie Circular, an act that had been signed by Jackson to boost the economy. The act required that payment for government lands be in gold and silver. However, with support from Polk and his cabinet, Van Buren chose to back the Specie Circular. Polk and Van Buren attempted to establish an Independent Treasury system that would allow the government to oversee its own deposits (rather than using pet banks), but the bill was defeated in the House. It eventually passed in 1840.
A master of the chamber's rules, Polk attempted to improve the order of House proceedings. Unlike many of his peers, he never challenged anyone to a duel no matter how much they insulted his honor. The economic downturn cost the Democrats seats, so that when Polk faced re-election as Speaker in December 1837, he won by only 13 votes, and he foresaw defeat in 1839. Polk by then had presidential ambitions, but was well aware that no Speaker had ever become president (Polk remains the only one ever to have held both offices). After seven terms in the House and two as speaker, Polk announced that he would not seek re-election, choosing instead to run for Governor of Tennessee in the 1839 election.
In 1835, the Democrats had lost the governorship of Tennessee for the first time in the party's history, and Polk decided to return home to help the party. Polk returned to a Tennessee afire for White and Whiggism; the state had changed greatly in its political loyalties since the days of Jacksonian domination. Polk undertook his first statewide campaign, against the Whig incumbent, "Newton Cannon, who sought a third two-year term. The Whigs had won both houses of the state legislature, giving them the opportunity to elect a United States Senator. The fact that Polk was the one called upon to "redeem" the state from the Whigs tacitly acknowledged him as head of the state Democratic Party.
Polk campaigned on national issues, whereas Cannon stressed matters local to Tennessee. After being out-debated by Polk in the early debates, the governor retreated to Nashville, by then the state capital, alleging important official business. Polk made speeches across the state, seeking to become known more widely than in his native "Middle Tennessee. When Cannon came back on the campaign trail in the final days, Polk pursued him, and hastened the length of the state to be able to debate the governor again. On Election Day, August 1, 1839, Polk defeated Cannon, 54,102 to 51,396, as the Democrats recaptured the state legislature and won back three congressional seats in Tennessee.
Tennessee's governor had limited power—there was no gubernatorial veto, and the small size of the state government limited any political patronage. But Polk saw the office as a springboard for his national ambitions, hoping to be nominated as Van Buren's vice presidential running mate at the "1840 Democratic National Convention in Baltimore in May. Polk hoped to be the replacement if Vice President "Richard Mentor Johnson was dumped from the ticket; Johnson was disliked by many Southern whites for fathering two daughters by a biracial mistress. Johnson was from Kentucky, so Polk's Tennessee residence would keep the New Yorker Van Buren's ticket balanced. The convention chose to endorse no one for vice president, stating that a choice would be made once the popular vote was cast. Three weeks after the convention, recognizing that Johnson was too popular in the party to be ousted, Polk withdrew his name. In any event, the Whig presidential candidate, General "William Henry Harrison, conducted "a rollicking campaign with the motto ""Tippecanoe and Tyler Too", easily winning both the national vote and that in Tennessee. Polk campaigned in vain for Van Buren and was embarrassed by the outcome; Jackson, who had returned to his home, "The Hermitage, near Nashville, was horrified at the prospect of a Whig administration. Harrison's death after a month in office in 1841 left the presidency to Vice President "John Tyler, who soon broke with the Whigs.
Polk's three major programs during his governorship; regulating state banks, implementing state internal improvements, and improving education all failed to win the approval of the legislature. His only major success as governor was the replacement of Tennessee's two Whig Senators with two Democrats. Polk's tenure was hindered by the continuing nationwide economic crisis that had followed the Panic of 1837 and which had caused Van Buren to lose the "1840 election.
Encouraged by the success of Harrison's campaign, the Whigs ran a freshman legislator from frontier "Wilson County, "James C. Jones against Polk in 1841. "Lean Jimmy" had proven one of their most effective gadflies against Polk in the legislator, and his lighthearted tone at campaign debates were very effective against the serious Polk. The two debated the length of Tennessee, and Jones's support of distribution to the states of surplus federal revenues, and of a national bank, struck a chord with Tennessee voters. On election day in August 1841, Polk was defeated by 3,000 votes, the first time he had been beaten at the polls. Polk returned to Columbia and the practice of law, and prepared for a rematch against Jones in 1843, but though the new governor took less of a joking tone, it made little difference to the outcome, as Polk was beaten again, this time by 3,833 votes. In the wake of his second statewide defeat in three years, Polk faced an uncertain political future.
Despite his 1843 gubernatorial loss, Polk was determined to become the next "Vice President of the United States. Van Buren was the frontrunner for the "1844 Democratic nomination, and Polk engaged in a delicate and subtle campaign to become Van Buren's running mate. Though Van Buren had the stature of a former president and was widely seen as the frontrunner, he faced opposition from Southerners who feared his views on slavery, while Van Buren's handling of the Panic of 1837—he had refused to rescind the Specie Circular— aroused opposition from some in the West (today's Midwest) who believed his hard money policies had hurt their section of the country. Many Southerners supported the candidacy of former Vice President John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, Westerners rallied around Senator "Lewis Cass of Michigan, and former Vice President Johnson also maintained a strong following among Democrats. Johnson hoped to be nominated for president, but was willing to accept second place on the ticket. Jackson assured Van Buren by letter that Polk ins campaigns had "fought the battle well and fought it alone" and Polk hoped to gain the New Yorker's support, hinting in a letter that Tennessee might go Democratic with Polk on the ticket, but found him unconvinced.
The biggest political issue in the United States at that time was territorial expansion. The "Republic of Texas had "successfully revolted against Mexico in 1836. Largely populated by American emigres, those on both sides of the "Sabine River border between the U.S. and Texas deemed it inevitable that Texas would join the United States, but this would anger Mexico, which considered Texas breakaway province, and threatened war if the United States annexed it. Jackson had recognized Texas independence, but the initial momentum toward annexation had stalled. Britain was seeking to expand her influence in Texas: Britain had abolished slavery, and if Texas did the same, it would provide a western haven for runaways to match those in the North. A Texas not in the United States would also stand in the way of what was deemed America's "Manifest Destiny to overspread the continent.
Clay was nominated for president by acclamation at the April "1844 Whig National Convention, with New Jersey's "Theodore Frelinghuysen his running mate. A Kentucky slaveholder at a time when opponents of "Texas annexation argued that it would give slavery more room to spread, Clay sought a nuanced position on the issue. Jackson, who strongly supported a Van Buren/Polk ticket, was delighted when Clay issued a letter for publication in the newspapers opposing Texas annexation, only to be devastated when he learned Van Buren had done the same thing. The former president did this because he feared losing his base of support in the Northeast. Van Buren supporters in the old Southwest (Louisiana and nearby states) were stunned at his action. Polk, on the other hand, had written a pro-annexation letter that had been published four days before Van Buren's. Jackson also had been shocked at the Van Buren letter; writing sadly to Van Buren that no candidate who opposed annexation could be elected, he looked to Polk to head the ticket. Jackson met with Polk at The Hermitage on May 13, 1844 and explained to his visitor that only an expansionist from the South or Southwest could be elected—and, in his view, Polk had the best chance. Polk immediately wrote to instruct his lieutenants at the convention to work for his nomination.
Despite Jackson's quiet efforts on his behalf, Polk was skeptical that he could win. But due to the opposition to Van Buren by expansionists in the West and South, Polk's key lieutenant at the "1844 Democratic National Convention in Baltimore, "Gideon Johnson Pillow, believed Polk could emerge as a compromise candidate. Publicly, however, Polk, who remained in Columbia during the convention, professed full support for Van Buren's candidacy, and was believed to be seeking the vice presidency. Polk was one of the few major Democrats to have declared for the annexation of Texas.
The convention opened on May 27, 1844. A crucial question was whether the candidates needed 2⁄3 of the delegate vote, as had been the case at previous Democratic conventions, or merely a majority. A vote for two-thirds would doom Van Buren's candidacy due to the opposition to him. With the support of the Southern states, the two thirds rule was passed. Van Buren won a majority on the first presidential ballot, but failed to win the necessary two-thirds, and his support slowly faded on subsequent ballots. Cass, Johnson, Calhoun, and "James Buchanan also received votes on the first ballot, and Cass took the lead after the fifth ballot. But after seven ballots, the convention appeared deadlocked: Cass could not attract the support necessary to reach two-thirds, and Van Buren's supporters were more and more discouraged about the former president's chances. Delegates were ready to consider a new candidate who might break the stalemate.
When the convention adjourned after the seventh ballot, Pillow, who had been waiting for an opportunity to press Polk's name, conferred with "George Bancroft of Massachusetts, a politician and historian who was a longtime Polk correspondent, and who had planned to nominate Polk for vice president. Bancroft had supported Van Buren's candidacy, and was willing to see New York Senator "Silas Wright head the ticket, but Wright would not consider taking a nomination that Van Buren wanted. Pillow and Bancroft decided if Polk were nominated for president, Wright might accept the second spot. Before the eighth ballot, former Attorney General "Benjamin F. Butler, head of the New York delegation, read a pre-written letter from Van Buren to be used if he could not be nominated, withdrawing in Wright's favor. But Wright (who was in Washington) had also entrusted a pre-written letter to a supporter, not knowing of Van Buren's endorsement, in which he refused to be considered as a presidential candidate, and stated in the letter that he agreed with Van Buren's position on Texas. Had Wright's letter not been read he most likely would have been nominated, but without him, Butler began to rally Van Buren supporters for Polk as the best possible candidate, and Bancroft placed Polk's name before the convention. On the eighth ballot, Polk received only 44 votes to Cass's 114 and Van Buren's 104, but the deadlock showed signs of breaking. Butler formally withdrew Van Buren's name, many delegations declared for the Tennessean, and on the ninth ballot Polk received 233 ballots to Cass's 29, making him the Democratic nominee for president. The nomination was then made unanimous.
This left the question of the vice presidential nomination. Butler urged Wright's nomination, and the convention agreed to this, with only eight Georgia delegates dissenting. As the convention waited, word of Wright's nomination was sent to him in Washington, where he was performing his duties as senator, using the "telegraph which had begun operations between the two cities on May 24, five days earlier. Having by proxy declined an almost certain presidential nomination, Wright would not accept the second place. A lengthy telegraphic exchange ensued, as Butler would not take no for an answer, and after Wright refused for the fourth time, the senator sent two congressmen to the Baltimore convention to convey his refusal in no uncertain terms. Senator "Robert J. Walker of Mississippi, a close Polk ally, suggested former senator "George M. Dallas of Pennsylvania. Dallas was acceptable enough to both factions, and gained the nomination on the second ballot. The delegates passed a platform, and adjourned on May 30.
Although many contemporary politicians, including Pillow and Bancroft, claimed credit in the years to come for getting Polk the nomination, Walter R. Borneman felt that most credit was due to Jackson and Polk, "the two who had done the most were back in Tennessee, one an aging icon ensconced at the Hermitage and the other a shrewd lifelong politician waiting expectantly in Columbia". When he received official word, Polk issued a letter of acceptance, pledging to serve only one term, hoping to heal divisions in the party by allowing the disaffected to support Polk while considering who should get the nomination in 1848. This did not work out as well as he hoped, as there was jockeying for position among those who hoped to be his successor.
The Whigs publicly scorned Polk with the chant "Who is James K. Polk?" in reference to Polk's relative obscurity. Though he had experience as Speaker of the House and Governor of Tennessee, all previous successful presidential nominees had served as Vice President, Secretary of State, or as a high-ranking general. Polk has been described as the first ""dark horse" presidential nominee, but his nomination was less of a surprise than that of future nominees such as "Franklin Pierce or "Warren G. Harding. Despite his party's gibes, Henry Clay, who was soon coronated as Whig presidential nominee, recognized that Polk could unify the Democrats.
Rumors of Polk's victory reached Nashville on June 4; much to Jackson's delight; they were substantiated later that day, and letters and newspapers describing what had happened at Baltimore were in Polk's hands by June 6. He accepted his nomination by letter dated June 12, alleging that he had never sought the office, and stating his intent to serve only one term. Following the custom of the time that presidential candidates avoided campaigning or appearing to seek the office, Polk remained in Columbia and made no speeches. He engaged in an extensive correspondence with Democratic Party officials as he managed his campaign. Polk made his views known in his acceptance letter, through his surrogates, and through responses to questions sent by citizens that were printed in newspapers, often by arrangement.
A potential pitfall for Polk's campaign was the issue of whether the tariff should be for revenue only, or with the intent to protect American industry. Polk finessed the tariff issue in a published letter. Recalling that he had long stated that tariffs should only be sufficient to finance government operations, he maintained that stance, but wrote that within that limitation, government could and should offer "fair and just protection" to American interests, including manufactures. He refused to expand on this stance, acceptable to most Democrats, despite the Whigs pointing out that he had committed himself to nothing. In September, a delegation of Whigs from nearby "Giles County came to Columbia, armed with specific questions on Polk's view on the current tariff, the Whig-passed "Tariff of 1842, and with the stated intent of remaining in Columbia until they got answers. Polk took several days to respond, and chose to stand by his earlier statement, provoking an outcry in the Whig papers.
A second concern was the third-party candidacy of President Tyler, which might split the Democratic vote. Tyler had been nominated by a group of loyal officeholders. Under no illusions he could win, he believed he could rally states' rights supporters and populists to hold the balance of power in the election. Only Jackson had the stature to resolve the situation, which he did with two letters to friends in Tyler's cabinet stating that his supporters would be welcomed back into the Democratic fold. Jackson also told Tyler that once he withdrew, many Democrats would embrace him for his pro-annexation stance. Jackson also used his influence to stop "Francis Blair and his Globe newspaper, the semi-official organ of the Democratic Party, from attacking Tyler. These proved enough; Tyler withdrew from the race on August 21.
Party troubles were a third concern. Polk and Calhoun made peace when a former South Carolina congressman, "Francis Pickens visited Tennessee and came to Columbia for two days and to The Hermitage for sessions with the increasingly ill Jackson. Calhoun wanted the Globe dissolved, and that Polk would act against the 1842 tariff and promote Texas annexation. Reassured on these points, Calhoun became a strong supporter.
Polk was aided regarding Texas when Clay, realizing his May letter had cost him support, attempted in two subsequent letters to clarify his position. These angered both sides, which attacked Clay as insincere. Texas also threatened to divide the Democrats sectionally, but Polk managed to appease most Southern party leaders without antagonizing Northern ones. As the election drew closer, it became clear that most of the country favored the annexation of Texas, and some Southern Whig leaders supported Polk's campaign due to Clay's anti-annexation stance.
The campaign was vitriolic; both major party candidates were accused of various acts of malfeasance; Polk was accused of being both a duelist and a coward. The most damaging smear was the "Roorback forgery; in late August an item appeared in an "abolitionist newspaper, part of a book detailing fictional travels through the south of a Baron von Roorback, an imaginary German nobleman. The Ithaca Chronicle inserted a sentence alleging that the traveler had seen forty slaves sold by Polk and branded with his initials. The item was withdrawn by the Chronicle when challenged by the Democrats, but was widely reprinted. Borneman suggested that the forgery backfired on Polk's opponents as it served to remind voters that Clay too was a slaveholder.
Becoming the first president elected despite losing his state of residence (Tennessee), Polk also lost his birth state, North Carolina. However, he won Pennsylvania and New York, where Clay lost votes to the antislavery Liberty Party candidate "James G. Birney, who got more votes in New York than Polk's margin of victory. Had Clay won New York, he would have been elected president. Also contributing to Polk's victory was the support of new immigrant voters, who opposed Whig policies. Polk won the popular vote by a margin of about 39,000 out of 2.6 million, and took the Electoral College with 170 votes to Clay's 105. Polk won 15 states, while Clay won 11.
Polk presided over a country whose population had doubled every twenty years since the "American Revolution and which had reached demographic parity with its former colonial overlord, "Great Britain. Polk's tenure saw continued technological improvements, including the continued expansion of "railroads and increased use of the "telegraph. These improved communications and growing demographics increasingly made the United States into a strong military power, while also stoking "expansionism.
According to George Bancroft, Polk set four clearly defined goals for his administration:
While his domestic aims represented continuity with past Democratic policies, successful completion of Polk's foreign policy goals would represent the first major "American territorial gains since the "Adams–Onís Treaty of 1819. Pledged to serve only one term, Polk accomplished his four major objectives. By linking acquisition of new lands in Oregon (with no slavery) and Texas (with slavery), he hoped to satisfy both North and South.["citation needed]
After being informed of his victory on November 15, 1844, Polk turned his attention to forming a geographically-balanced Cabinet. He consulted Jackson and one or two other close allies, and decided that the large states of New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia should have representation in the six-member Cabinet, as should his home state of Tennessee. At a time when an incoming president might retain some or all of his predecessor's department heads, Polk wanted an entirely fresh Cabinet, but this proved delicate. Tyler's final Secretary of State was Calhoun, leader of a considerable faction of the Democratic Party, but when approached by emissaries, did not take offense and was willing to step down. Secretary of War "William Wilkins, although he was Vice President-elect Dallas's brother-in-law, apparently was not seriously considered by the incoming president for the Pennsylvania slot. Navy Secretary "John Y. Mason of Virginia, Tyler's friend since college days and a longtime political ally, was not on Polk's original list. As his choices were affected by factional politics and President Tyler's drive to resolve the Texas issue before leaving office, Polk at the last minute chose him as Attorney General.
Polk did not want his Cabinet to contain presidential hopefuls, though he chose to nominate James Buchanan, whose desire for the presidency was well-known, for the post of Secretary of State. Objection to Buchanan was made by Dallas, who headed an opposing faction to him in the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, but the concerns were brushed aside. Polk wrote Van Buren and Wright with the intention of appointing an acceptable New Yorker to the position of Secretary of the Treasury, and each recommended former congressman "Azariah C. Flagg. Polk initially decided to nominate Mississippi Senator Walker to the position of Attorney General. Tennessee's "Cave Johnson, a close friend and ally of Polk, would be nominated for the position of Postmaster General, with George Bancroft, the historian who had placed a crucial role in Polk's nomination as Navy Secretary. For the position of Secretary of War, Polk initially planned to appoint "Andrew Stevenson of Virginia, giving Polk's potential Cabinet three slave state leaders and three free state leaders. Polk's Cabinet choices met with the approval of Andrew Jackson, who Polk met with in January 1845 for the last time, as Jackson would die in June 1845.
Once news of Buchanan's selection for State was leaked, Dallas and a number of Southerners insisted that Walker receive the higher position at Treasury. Polk instead chose to nominate Bancroft as a compromise at Treasury while nominating Mason as Attorney General and a New Yorker, "William L. Marcy, as Secretary of War. Polk had intended the Marcy appointment to mollify Van Buren, but Van Buren was outraged at the move, in part due to Marcy's affiliation with the rival ""Hunker" faction of the state party. Polk then further enraged Van Buren by finally choosing to elevate Walker to Treasury, alienating the former president and Senator Wright from the incoming Polk administration. Thus, Polk's final Cabinet selections were of Buchanan as Secretary of State, Walker as Secretary of the Treasury, Marcy as Secretary of War, Mason as Attorney General, Cave Johnson as Postmaster General, and Bancroft as Secretary of the Navy. All won Senate confirmation after Polk took office. Despite the storm and drama in putting together the Cabinet, the members worked well together, and few replacements were necessary. One reshuffle was required in 1846 when Bancroft, who wanted a diplomatic posting, became U.S. minister to Britain.
As Polk put together his Cabinet, President Tyler sought to complete the annexation of Texas. While the Senate had defeated an earlier treaty that would annex the republic, Tyler sought to have Congress pass a joint resolution, relying on its constitutional power to admit states. There were disagreements about whether slavery should continue to be legal in Texas, and Polk became involved in negotiations to break the impasse. With Polk's help, the annexation resolution narrowly cleared the Senate. Two days before Polk's inauguration, Tyler extended to Texas a formal offer of annexation.
Even before his inauguration, Polk wrote to Cave Johnson, "I intend to be myself President of the U.S." He would gain a reputation for a hard worker, spending ten to twelve hours at his desk, and rarely leaving Washington. Polk wrote, "No President who performs his duty faithfully and conscientiously can have any leisure. I prefer to supervise the whole operations of the government myself rather than intrust the public business to subordinates, and this makes my duties very great." When he took office on March 4, 1845, Polk, at 49, became the "youngest president to that point. Polk's inauguration was the first "inaugural ceremony to be reported by "telegraph and to be shown in a newspaper illustration (in "The Illustrated London News).
In his inaugural address, delivered in a steady rain, Polk made clear his support for the annexation of Texas by referring to the 28 states, thus including Texas. He proclaimed his fidelity to Jackson's principles by quoting his famous toast, "Every lover of his country must shudder at the thought of the possibility of its dissolution and will be ready to adopt the patriotic sentiment, 'Our Federal Union—it must be preserved.'" He stated his opposition to a national bank, and repeated that the tariff could include incidental protection. Although he did not mention slavery specifically, he alluded to it, decrying those who would tear down a institution protected by the Constitution.
Polk devoted the second half of his speech to foreign affairs, and specifically to expansion. He applauded the Texas annexation, warning that Texas was no affair of any other nation, and certainly none of Mexico. He spoke of the Oregon Country, and of the many who were migrating there, pledging to protect America's rights there, and to protect the settlers.
|The Polk Cabinet|
|"President||James K. Polk||1845–1849|
|"Vice President||"George M. Dallas||1845–1849|
|"Secretary of State||"James Buchanan||1845–1849|
|"Secretary of Treasury||"Robert J. Walker||1845–1849|
|"Secretary of War||"William L. Marcy||1845–1849|
|"Attorney General||"John Y. Mason||1845–1846|
|"Postmaster General||"Cave Johnson||1845–1849|
|"Secretary of the Navy||"George Bancroft||1845–1846|
|"John Y. Mason||1846–1849|
Polk appointed the following justices to the "U.S. Supreme Court:
|"Levi Woodbury||Seat 2||September 20, 1845||September 4, 1851|
|"Robert Cooper Grier||Seat 3||August 4, 1846||January 31, 1870|
The 1844 death of Justice "Henry Baldwin left a vacant place on the Supreme Court, but Tyler had been unable to get the Senate to confirm a nominee. At the time, it was the custom to have geographic balance on the Supreme Court, and Baldwin had been from Pennsylvania. Polk's effort to fill Baldwin's seat became embroiled in Pennsylvania politics and the efforts of factional leaders to secure the lucrative post of Collector of Customs for the Port of Philadelphia. As Polk attempted to find his way through the minefield of Pennsylvania politics, a second position on the high court became vacant with the death, in September 1845, of Justice "Joseph Story; his replacement was expected to come from his native New England. As Story's death had occurred during the recess of the Senate, Polk was able to make a "recess appointment, choosing Senator "Levi Woodbury of New Hampshire, and when the Senate reconvened in December 1845, Woodbury was confirmed. Polk's nominee for Baldwin's seat, "George W. Woodward, was rejected by the Senate in January 1846, in large part due to the opposition of Buchanan and Pennsylvania Senator "Simon Cameron.  A second nomination was delayed as Buchanan considered whether to accept a nomination himself; he eventually decided against. Polk subsequently nominated "Robert Cooper Grier of Pittsburgh, and Grier won confirmation. Justice Woodbury died in 1851, but Grier served until 1870 and joined Chief Justice "Roger B. Taney's majority opinion in the slavery case of "Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857).
Polk appointed eight other federal judges, one to the "United States Circuit Court of the District of Columbia, and seven to various "United States district courts.
Polk strongly supported expansion, and relations with Mexico and Great Britain, the country's southern and northern neighbors respectively, dominated Polk's presidency. Polk, like many other Democrats, fervently believed in the idea of Manifest Destiny, and he sought to create a bicoastal nation. Polk was successful in pursuing this goal, as his presidency saw the partition of "Oregon Country with Britain, the annexation of Texas, and the acquisition of vast amounts of land from Mexico.
Britain derived its claim to the Oregon Country from the explorations of Captains "James Cook and "George Vancouver, the Americans from the explorations of the "Lewis and Clark expedition and from the discovery of the "Columbia River by the American sea captain, "Robert Gray. By treaty, Russia had waived any claim south of the southern border of Alaska, which it then possessed, and Spain, which until the "Mexican Revolution owned the Pacific Coast to the "42nd parallel, ceded any claims it might have north of that to the United States under the "Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819.
Rather than war over the distant and low-population territory, the United States and Britain had negotiated. Since the signing of the "Treaty of 1818, the Oregon Country had been under the joint occupation and control of the United Kingdom and the United States. Previous U.S. administrations had offered to divide the region along the "49th parallel, which was not acceptable to Britain, as they had commercial interests along the Columbia River. Britain's preferred partition was unacceptable to Polk, as it would have awarded the "Puget Sound and all lands north of the Columbia River to Britain, and Britain was unwilling to accept the 49th parallel extended to the Pacific, as it meant the entire opening to Puget Sound would be in American hands, isolating its settlements along the "Fraser River. "Edward Everett, President Tyler's ambassador to Great Britain, had proposed a new solution that would divide most of the territory at the 49th parallel but grant the strategic "Vancouver Island to the British, thus allowing an opening to the Pacific, but Tyler's term ended before negotiations could proceed. Oregon had not been a major issue in the 1844 election, but the heavy influx of settlers, mostly American, to the Oregon Country in 1845, and the rising spirit of expansionism in the United States as Texas and Oregon seized the public's eye, made a treaty with Britain more urgent. Many Democrats believed that the United States should expand from coast to coast, a philosophy described as "Manifest Destiny.
Though both sides sought an acceptable compromise, each also saw the territory as an important geopolitical asset that would play a large part in determining the dominant power in North America. In his inaugural address, Polk announced that he viewed the American claim to the land as "clear and unquestionable", provoking threats of war from British leaders should Polk attempt to take control of the entire territory. Polk had refrained in his address to asserting a claim to the entire territory, which extended north to 54 degrees, 40 minutes north latitude, although the Democratic Party platform called for such a claim. Despite Polk's hawkish rhetoric, he viewed war with the British as unwise, and Polk and Buchanan opened up negotiations with the British. Like his predecessors, Polk again proposed a division along the 49th parallel, which was immediately rejected by the British ambassador, "Richard Pakenham. Secretary of State Buchanan was wary of a two-front war with both Mexico and Britain, but Polk was willing to risk war with both countries in pursuit of a favorable settlement. As 1845 came to an end, Polk began preparations to give Britain a one-year notice (as required in the Treaty of 1818) of his intention to terminate the joint occupancy of Oregon.
When the British Foreign Secretary, "Lord Aberdeen, learned of the proposal rejected by Pakenham, Aberdeen asked the United States to re-open negotiations, but Polk was unwilling unless a proposal was made by the British. After the brief collapse of British Prime Minister "Robert Peel's "second ministry, Peel and Aberdeen sought closer relations with the United States as part of a re-orientation towards free trade. In March 1846, Polk allowed Buchanan to inform "Louis McLane, the American ambassador to Britain, that Polk's administration would look favorably on a British proposal based around a division at the 49th parallel. In June 1846, Pakenham presented an offer to the Polk administration, calling for a boundary line at the 49th parallel, with the exception that Britain would retain all of Vancouver Island, and there would be limited navigation rights for British subjects on the Columbia River until the expiration of the charter of the "Hudson's Bay Company in 1858. Polk and most of his Cabinet were prepared to accept the proposal, but Buchanan, in a reversal, urged that the United States seek control of all of the Oregon Territory.
After winning the reluctant approval of Buchanan, and choosing to have the Senate weigh in (favorably) on the draft treaty, Polk submitted the full treaty to the Senate for ratification. The Senate ratified the treaty in a 41–14 vote, with opposition from a few diehards who sought the full territory. After years of negotiations, the United States and Great Britain had finally settled the "Oregon question. Polk's willingness to risk war with Britain had frightened many, but his tough negotiation tactics may have gained the United States concessions from the British (particularly regarding the Columbia River) that a more conciliatory president might not have won.
The portion of the Oregon Territory acquired by the United States later formed the states of "Washington, "Oregon, and "Idaho, and parts of the states of "Montana and "Wyoming. The borders established by the Oregon Treaty now constitute a portion of the "Canada–United States border.
The "Republic of Texas had gained independence from Mexico following the "Texas Revolution of 1836. Many "Texians had migrated from the United States, and many Americans and Texians sought to make Texas a part of the United States. A firm supporter of annexation, President Tyler urged Congress to pass a "joint resolution admitting Texas to the Union in his final "annual message to Congress, and signed the resulting resolution just days before leaving office. The resolution gave the president the choice of asking Texas to approve annexation, or reopening negotiation; Tyler immediately sent word to the "United States Ambassador to Texas, "Andrew Jackson Donelson, choosing the former option. Thus, Polk's first major decision in office was whether to recall Tyler's emissary to Texas.
Though it was within Polk's power to recall the messenger, he chose to allow the emissary to continue, with the hope that Texas would accept the offer. He also sent Congressman "Archibald Yell of Arkansas as his personal emissary to the Texians, taking his private assurance that the United States would defend Texas, and would fix its southern border at the Rio Grande]], rather than at the "Nueces River, as claimed by Mexico. Polk retained Donelson in his post, and the ambassador sought to convince the Texan leaders to accept annexation under the terms proposed by the Tyler administration. Though public sentiment in Texas favored annexation, some Texas leaders, including President "Anson Jones, hoped negotiation would bring better terms. Britain had offered to work a deal whereby Texas would gain Mexican recognition in exchange for a pledge never to annex itself to another country, but after consideration, the influential former president, "Sam Houston, rejected it, as did the "Texas Congress.
In July 1845, a convention ratified annexation, and thereafter voters approved it. In December 1845, Polk signed a resolution annexing Texas, and Texas became the 28th state. Mexico had broken diplomatic relations with the United States on passage of the joint resolution in March 1845; annexation increased tensions with Mexico, which had never recognized Texan independence.
Perhaps the most important event of Polk's presidency was the Mexican-American War. Though the United States had been the first country to recognize "Mexico's independence following the "Mexican War of Independence, relations between the two countries began to sour in the 1830s. In the 1830s and 1840s, the United States, like France and Britain, sought a reparations treaty with Mexico for various acts committed by Mexican citizens and authorities, including the seizure of American ships. Though the United States and Mexico had agreed to a joint board to settle the various claims prior to Polk's presidency, many Americans accused the Mexican government of acting in bad faith. For its part, Mexico saw many Americans as desirous of the acquisition of "Alta California and of filing specious or exaggerated claims. The already-troubled "Mexico–United States relations were further inflamed by the possibility of the annexation of Texas, as Mexico still viewed Texas as an integral part of Mexico. Additionally, Texas laid claim to all land North of the "Rio Grande River, while Mexico argued that the more northern "Nueces River was the proper Texan border. Though the United States had a population more than twice as numerous and an economy thirteen times greater than that of Mexico, Mexico was not prepared to give up its claim to Texas, even if it meant war. Following the Texan ratification of annexation in 1845, both Mexicans and Americans saw war as a likely possibility. Polk began preparations for a potential war with Mexico over Texas, and Polk sent an army led by General "Zachary Taylor into Texas. Taylor and Commodore "David Conner of the US Navy were both ordered to avoid provoking a war, while at the same time to prepare for war and respond to any Mexican breach of peace.
Though Polk genuinely desired to avoid a war with Mexico, he more strongly desired the acquisition of Texas and Alta California. As in Texas, Mexico had failed to establish strong control over the sprawling expanse of California, and, as in Texas, many Americans had migrated to the region. Polk was particularly worried that the British or another European power would eventually establish control over California if it remained in Mexican hands. Polk hoped that a show of force by the U.S. military under Taylor and Conner could avert war and lead to negotiations with the Mexican government. In late 1845, Polk sent diplomat "John Slidell to Mexico to purchase California for $20–40 million. Slidell arrived in "Mexico City in December 1845. Though Mexican President "José Joaquín de Herrera was open to negotiations, Slidell's ambassadorial credentials were refused by a Mexican council of government. In December 1845, Herrera's government collapsed in large part due to his willingness to negotiate with the United States, as the possibility of the sale of large portions of Mexico aroused anger among both the Mexican elites and broader populace. Herrera was succeeded by General "Mariano Paredes, and Mexico began to write a new constitution. As successful negotiations with the unstable Mexican government appeared unlikely, War Secretary Marcy ordered General Taylor to advance to the Rio Grande River. Polk began preparations to support a potential new government led by the exiled Mexican General "Antonio López de Santa Anna with the hope that Santa Anna would sell parts of California. Polk had been advised by Alejandro Atocha, an associate of Santa Anna, that only the threat of war would allow the Mexican government the leeway to sell parts of Mexico.
In March 1846, Slidell finally left Mexico after the government refused his demand to be formally received. Slidell returned to Washington in May 1846, and gave his opinion that negotiations with the Mexican government were unlikely to be successful. Polk regarded the treatment of his diplomat as an insult and an "ample cause of war", and he prepared to ask Congress for a declaration of war. Meanwhile, in late March, General Taylor had reached the Rio Grande, and his army camped across the river from "Matamoros, Tamaulipas. In April, after Mexican general "Pedro de Ampudia demanded that Taylor return to the Nueces River, Taylor began a blockade of Matamoros. A skirmish on the northern side of the Rio Grande ended in the death or capture of dozens of American soldiers, and became known as the "Thornton Affair. While the administration was in the process of asking for a declaration of war, Polk received word of the outbreak of hostilities on the Rio Grande. In a message to Congress, Polk explained his decision to send Taylor to the Rio Grande, and stated that Mexico had invaded American territory by crossing the river. Polk contended that a state of war already existed, and he asked Congress to grant him the power to bring the war to a close. Polk's message was crafted to present the war as a just and necessary defense of the country against a neighbor that had long troubled the United States. In his message, Polk noted that Slidell had gone to Mexico to negotiate a recognition of the Texas annexation, but did not mention that he also sought the purchase of California.
Some Whigs, such as "Abraham Lincoln, challenged Polk's version of events, but the House overwhelmingly approved of a resolution authorizing the president to call up fifty thousand volunteers. In the Senate, war opponents led by Calhoun also questioned Polk's version of events. Nonetheless, the House resolution passed the Senate in a 40–2 vote, marking the beginning of the "Mexican-American War. Many would-be opponents of the war feared that opposition would cost them politically by casting themselves as unpatriotic for not supporting the war effort.
In May 1846, Taylor led the U.S. in the inconclusive "Battle of Palo Alto, the first major battle of the war. The next day, Taylor led the army to victory in the "Battle of Resaca de la Palma, eliminating the possibility of a Mexican incursion into the United States. Meanwhile, "Winfield Scott, the army's lone "major general at the outbreak of the war, was offered the position of top commander in the war. Polk, War Secretary Marcy, and Scott agreed on a strategy in which the US would capture northern Mexico and then pursue a favorable peace settlement. However, Polk and Scott experienced mutual distrust from the beginning of their relationship, in part due to Scott's Whig affiliation and former rivalry with Andrew Jackson. Additionally, Polk sought to ensure that both Whigs and Democrats would serve in important positions in the war, and was offended when Scott suggested otherwise; Scott also angered Polk by opposing Polk's effort to increase the number of generals. Having been alienated from Scott, Polk ordered Scott to remain in Washington, leaving Taylor in command of Mexican operations. Polk also ordered Commodore Conner to allow Santa Anna to return to Mexico from his exile, and sent an army expedition led by "Stephen W. Kearny towards "Santa Fe.
In 1845, Polk, fearful of French or British intervention, had sent Lieutenant "Archibald H. Gillespie to California with orders to foment a pro-American rebellion that could be used to justify annexation of the territory. After meeting with Gillespie, Army captain "John C. Frémont led settlers in northern California to overthrow the Mexican garrison in "Sonoma in what became known as the "Bear Flag Revolt. In August 1846, American forces under Kearny captured Santa Fe, capital of the province of "New Mexico. At roughly the same time that Kearny captured Santa Fe, Commodore "Robert F. Stockton landed in "Los Angeles and proclaimed the capture of California. After American forces put down a revolt, United States held effective control of two northern Mexican provinces. However, the Western theater of the war would prove to be a political headache for Polk, as a dispute between Frémont and Kearny led to a break between Polk and the powerful Missouri Senator (and father-in-law of Frémont), Thomas Hart Benton.
At its outbreak, the war enjoyed support across the nation. However, Whig Congressman "Columbus Delano accused Polk of engineering the war, and Whig resistance to the war spread. In August 1846, Polk asked Congress to appropriate $2 million as a down payment for the potential purchase of California. Polk's request ignited opposition to the war, as Polk had never before made public his desire to annex parts of Mexico (aside from lands claimed by Texas). A freshman Democratic Congressman, "David Wilmot of Pennsylvania, offered an amendment to the bill that would ban slavery in any newly acquired lands. The ""Wilmot Proviso", as it became known, injected the slavery debate into the Mexican-American War. The appropriation bill, with the Wilmot Proviso attached, passed the House in an 87–64 vote, but the bill died in the Senate. Polk's Democrats would pay a price for the resistance to the war and the growing issue of slavery, as Democrats lost control of the House in the "1846 elections. However, in early 1847, Polk was successful in passing a bill raising further regiments, and he also finally won approval for the money he wanted to use for the purchase of California.
In July 1846, American envoy "Alexander Slidell Mackenzie met with Santa Anna, offering terms in which the US would pay to acquire the "San Francisco Bay and other parts of Alta California. Santa Anna returned to Mexico City in September 1846, declaring that he would fight against the Americans. With the duplicity of Santa Anna now clear, and with the Mexicans declining his peace offer, Polk ordered an American landing in "Veracruz, the most important Mexican port on the "Gulf of Mexico. In the September 1846 "Battle of Monterrey, Taylor defeated a Mexican force led by Ampudia, but allowed Ampudia's forces to withdraw, much to Polk's consternation. Taylor was ordered to remain near Monterrey, while Polk reluctantly chose Winfield Scott to lead the attack on Veracruz. In March 1847, Polk learned that Taylor had ignored orders and had continued to march South, capturing the northern Mexican town of "Saltillo. Taylor's army repulsed a larger Mexican force, led by Santa Anna, in the "Battle of Buena Vista. Meanwhile, Scott landed in Veracruz, and quickly "won control of the city. With the capture of Veracruz, Polk dispatched "Nicholas Trist, Buchanan's chief clerk, to negotiate a peace treaty with Mexican leaders. Trist was ordered to seek the cession of Alta California, New Mexico, and "Baja California, recognition of the Rio Grande as the southern border of Texas, and American access across the "Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Trist was authorized to make a payment of up to $30 million in exchange for these concessions.
In August 1847, Scott defeated Santa Anna at the "Battle of Contreras and the "Battle of Churubusco. With these victories over a larger force, Scott's army was positioned to besiege Mexico's capital. Santa Anna negotiated a truce with Scott, and the Mexican foreign minister notified Trist that they were ready to begin negotiations. However, the Mexican and American delegations remained far apart on terms; Mexico was only willing to yield portions of Upper California, and refused to agree to the Rio Grande border. While negotiations continued, Scott captured the Mexican capital in the "Battle for Mexico City. In the United States, a heated political debate emerged regarding how much of Mexico the United States should seek to annex, with Whigs such as Henry Clay arguing that the United States should only seek to settle the Texas border question, and some expansionists arguing for the "annexation of all of Mexico. Frustrated by the lack of progress in negotiations, and troubled by rumors that Trist was willing to negotiate on the Rio Grande border, Polk ordered Trist to return to Washington. Polk decided to occupy large portions of Mexico and wait for a Mexican peace offer. In late 1847, Polk learned of Scott and Trist's attempt to bribe Mexican officials in an attempt to open negotiations, as well as Scott's court-martial of a close Polk friend, "Gideon Johnson Pillow. Outraged especially by the latter event, Polk demanded Scott's return to Washington, with "William Orlando Butler tapped as his replacement.
In September 1847, "Manuel de la Peña y Peña replaced Santa Anna as President of Mexico, and Pena and his Moderado allies showed a willingness to negotiate based on the terms Polk had relayed to Trist. In November 1847, Trist received Polk's order to return to Washington. After a period of indecision, and with the backing of Scott and the Mexican government (which was aware of Trist's recall), Trist decided to enter into negotiations with the Mexican government. As Polk had made no plans to send an envoy to replace him, Trist thought that he could not pass up the opportunity to end the war on favorable terms. Though Polk was outraged by Trist's decision, he decided to allow Trist some time to negotiate a treaty.
Throughout January 1848, Trist regularly met with Mexican officials in Guadalupe Hidalgo, a small town North of Mexico City. Trist was willing to allow Mexico to keep Lower California, but successfully haggled for the inclusion of the important harbor of "San Diego in a cession of Upper California. The Mexican delegation agreed to recognize the Rio Grande border, while Trist agreed to have the United States cover prior American claims against the Mexican government. The two sides also agreed to the right of Mexicans in annexed territory to leave or become U.S. citizens, American responsibility to prevent cross-border Indian raids, protection of church property, and a $15 million payment to Mexico. On February 2, 1848, Trist and the Mexican delegation signed the "Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Polk received the document on February 19. While he remained angry at Trist for disobeying orders, Polk and a majority of his Cabinet accepted the terms of the treaty. In dissent were Buchanan, who called for more territory, and Secretary of the Treasury Walker, who wanted to annex all of Mexico. Though Polk also expressed a desire for more territory, he was eager to bring the war to a close and reasonably satisfied with the amount of ceded territory, so he submitted the treaty to the Senate. Ratification of the treaty required a 2/3 super-majority of the Senate, and ratification was uncertain due to the opposition of various Senators, including those who opposed the annexation of any Mexican territory. On March 10, the Senate ratified the treaty in a 38–14 vote, with aye and nay votes spread equally across partisan and geographic lines. The Senate made some modifications to the treaty before ratification, and Polk worried that the Mexican government would reject the modifications. However, on June 7, Polk learned that Mexico had ratified the treaty, thus ending the war. With the acquisition of California, Polk had accomplished all four of his major presidential goals.
The "Mexican Cession added 600,000 square miles of territory to the United States, including a long "Pacific coastline. The modern states of "California, "Nevada, "Utah, most of "Arizona, and parts of "New Mexico, "Colorado, and "Wyoming were all included in the Mexican Cession. The treaty also recognized the annexation of Texas and acknowledged American control over the disputed territory between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande. Mexico, in turn, received $15 million. The war had cost the lives of nearly 14,000 Americans and 25,000 Mexicans, as well as the expense of roughly one hundred million dollars. The 1853 "Gadsden Purchase would later acquire another 30,000 square miles from Mexico (the area eventually became part of Arizona and New Mexico), establishing the modern borders of the "Contiguous United States.
Polk issued an official proclamation of the end of the war on July 4, 1848. Polk's next task was the establishment of territorial governments in the new territories, which was complicated by the ongoing slavery debate. The "Missouri Compromise had settled the issue of the geographic reach of slavery within the "Louisiana Purchase territories by prohibiting slavery North of the 36°30′ latitude, and Polk sought to extend this line into the newly acquired territory. Polk supported a territorial organization bill crafted by Senator "John M. Clayton that would have prohibited slavery in Oregon while staying silent on the issue in California and New Mexico. Though the bill passed the Senate, it was defeated in the House in an effort led by "Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia. A separate measure to extend the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific coast was also defeated in the House, this time by a bipartisan alliance of northerners. As the last congressional session before the 1848 election came to a close, Polk signed the lone territorial bill passed by Congress, which established the "Territory of Oregon and prohibited slavery in it. Polk feared that the failure to provide for an organized government in New Mexico and especially California could lead to independence for those remote regions. When Congress re-convened in December, he focused his efforts on granting immediate statehood to California, thereby avoiding the issue of the Wilmot Proviso. However, the divisive issue of slavery blocked any such legislation, and Polk left office fearing that the United States might lose the western territories acquired during his presidency. The "Compromise of 1850 would later settle a number of outstanding issues from Polk's presidency, including the admission of California as a state and the creation of "New Mexico Territory and "Utah Territory.
Polk's ambassador to the "Republic of New Granada, "Benjamin Alden Bidlack, negotiated the "Mallarino–Bidlack Treaty with the government of New Granada. Though Bidlack had initially only sought to remove tariffs on American goods, Bidlack and New Granadan Foreign Minister "Manuel María Mallarino negotiated a broader agreement that deepened military and trade ties between the two countries. The treaty also allowed for the construction of the "Panama Railway. In an era of slow overland travel, the treaty gave the United States a route to more rapidly travel between its eastern and western coasts. In exchange, Bidlack agreed to have the United States guarantee New Granada's sovereignty over the "Isthmus of Panama. The treaty won ratification in both countries in 1848. The agreement helped to establish a stronger American influence in the region, as the Polk administration sought to ensure that Great Britain would not dominate "Central America. The United States would use the Mallarino-Bidlack Treaty as justification for numerous military interventions in the 19th century.
In mid-1848, President Polk authorized his ambassador to Spain, "Romulus Mitchell Saunders, to negotiate the purchase of "Cuba and offer "Spain up to $100 million, an astounding sum at the time for one territory, equal to $2.77 billion in present-day terms. Cuba was close to the United States and had slavery, so the idea appealed to Southerners but was unwelcome in the North. However, Spain was still making huge profits in Cuba (notably in sugar, molasses, rum, and tobacco), and thus the Spanish government rejected Saunders' overtures. Though Polk was eager to acquire Cuba, he refused to support the proposed "filibuster expedition of "Narciso López, who sought to invade and annex Cuba.
In his inaugural address, Polk called upon Congress to re-establish the "Independent Treasury System under which government funds were held in the Treasury and not in banks or other financial institutions. President Van Buren had previously established a similar system, but it had been abolished during the Tyler administration. After personally winning the support of Senator "Dixon Lewis, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Polk was able to push the Independent Treasury Act through Congress, signing it into law on August 6, 1846. The act provided that the public revenues were to be retained in the "Treasury building and in sub-treasuries in various cities, separate from private or state banks, to receive all government funds. The system would remain in place until the passage of the "Federal Reserve Act in 1913.
Polk's other major domestic initiative was the lowering of the tariff, as Polk argued that the tariff should only be as high as necessary for the operation of the federal government. Though he had taken an ambivalent position on the tariff during the 1844 campaign in order to win Northern votes, Polk had long opposed a high tariff and viewed the "protection of manufacturing interests as unfair to other economic activities. Polk directed Secretary of the Treasury Robert Walker to draft a new and lower tariff, which Polk submitted to Congress. After intense lobbying campaigns by both sides, the bill passed the House and, in a close vote that required Vice President Dallas to "break a tie, the Senate. In 1846, Polk signed the "Walker Tariff into law, substantially reducing the rates that had been set by the Whig-backed "Tariff of 1842. The new law abandoned "ad valorem tariffs and set rates independent of the monetary value of the product. Polk's lowering of the tariff was popular in the South and West; however, it was despised by many protectionists in the Northeast, especially "Pennsylvania. A reduction of tariffs in the United States and a repeal of the "Corn Laws in Great Britain led to a boom in Anglo-American trade.
Congress passed the "Rivers and Harbors Bill in 1846 to provide $500,000 to improve rivers and harbors, but Polk vetoed the bill. It would have provided for federally funded "internal improvements on small harbors. Polk believed that this was unconstitutional because the bill unfairly favored particular areas, including ports which had no foreign trade. Polk believed that these problems were local and not national. Polk feared that passing the Rivers and Harbors Bill would encourage legislators to compete for favors for their home districts – a type of "corruption that would spell doom to the "virtue of the republic. In this regard he followed his hero "Andrew Jackson, who had vetoed the "Maysville Road Bill in 1830 on similar grounds.
Like Jackson, Polk saw slavery as a side issue compared to more important matters such as territorial expansion and economic policy. However, the issue of slavery became increasingly polarizing during the 1840s, and Polk's expansionary policies increased its divisiveness. During his presidency, many abolitionists harshly criticized him as an instrument of the ""Slave Power", and claimed that spreading slavery was the reason he supported "annexing Texas and later "war with Mexico. The "Wilmot Proviso, introduced by Democratic Representative "David Wilmot of Pennsylvania on August 8, 1846 (just two months after the outbreak of the Mexican–American War), aimed to ban slavery anywhere in any territory that might be acquired from Mexico. Polk and many other Southerners were against the measure (which passed in the House, but not in the Senate). Polk argued instead for extending the "Missouri Compromise line west to the "Pacific Ocean. That would have allowed slavery below the 36° 30' latitude line west of "Missouri, and prohibit it above. Though Polk opposed the Wilmot Proviso, he also condemned southern agitation on the issue, and he accused both northern and southern leaders of attempting to use the slavery issue for political gain.
Polk was a slaveholder for his entire life. His father, Samuel Polk, had left Polk more than 8,000 acres (32 km²) of land, and divided about 53 slaves to his widow and children after he died. James inherited twenty of his father's slaves, either directly or from deceased brothers. In 1831, he became an absentee cotton planter, sending slaves to clear "plantation land that his father had left him near "Somerville, Tennessee. Four years later Polk sold his Somerville plantation and, together with his brother-in-law, bought 920 acres (3.7 km²) of land, a cotton plantation near "Coffeeville, Mississippi. He ran this plantation for the rest of his life, eventually taking it over completely from his brother-in-law. Polk rarely sold slaves, although once he became President and could better afford it, he bought more. Polk's will stipulated that their slaves were to be freed after his wife, Sarah, had died. However, the 1865 "Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution abolished slavery in the United States long before the death of his wife in 1891. The "Emancipation Proclamation issued in 1863 declared that all slaves in rebel states were free. However, Portions of Louisiana and, at the request of Military Governor "Andrew Johnson, the entire state of Tennessee, Sarah's residence, were exempt from the proclamation as they were under Union control.
One of Polk's last acts as President was to sign the bill creating the "Department of the Interior (March 3, 1849). This was the first new cabinet position created since the early days of the Republic. Polk had misgivings about the federal government usurping power over public lands from the states; however, the delivery of the legislation on his last full day in office gave him no time to find constitutional grounds for a veto, or to draft a sufficient veto message, so Polk signed the bill.
Honoring his pledge to serve only one term, Polk declined to seek re-election in 1848. However, Polk's actions strongly affected the 1848 race. With Polk out of the race, the Democratic Party remained fractured along geographic lines, with Senators Cass and Calhoun the leading western and southern candidates, respectively. Former President Van Buren also retained strong support among northeasterners. Polk privately favored Cass as his successor, but resisted becoming closely involved in the election. At the "1848 Democratic National Convention, which lasted from May 22 to May 25, a message from Polk reiterated his absolute refusal to serve a second term. At the convention, Buchanan, Cass, and Supreme Court Justice Levi Woodbury emerged as the main contenders. Cass led after the first ballot, and slowly gained support until he clinched the nomination on the fourth ballot. William Butler, who had replaced Winfield Scott as the commanding general in Mexico City, won the vice presidential nomination. Cass's nomination from many northerners and southerners, each of whom saw Cass as insufficiently committed to their position on the slavery issue.
During the course of the Mexican War, Generals Taylor and Scott emerged as strong Whig candidates, alongside anti-war Senator "Thomas Corwin and longtime party leader Henry Clay. As the war continued, Taylor's stature with the public grew, and he announced in 1847 that he would not refuse the presidency. The "1848 Whig National Convention took place on June 8, with Taylor, Clay, Scott, and Massachusetts Senator "Daniel Webster emerging as the major candidates. Taylor narrowly led Clay after the first ballot, but Taylor steadily grew his support until he captured the nomination on the fourth ballot. Clay bemoaned the selection of Taylor, as the ideologically ambiguous Taylor had not articulated his preferred policies. The Whigs chose former Congressman "Millard Fillmore of New York as Taylor's running mate.
In New York, an anti-slavery Democratic faction known as the "Barnburners strongly supported the Wilmot Proviso and rejected Cass. Joined by other anti-slavery Democrats from other states, the Barnburners held a convention nominating former President "Martin Van Buren as their own presidential nominee. Though Van Buren had not been known for his anti-slavery views while president, he embraced them in 1848. Polk was surprised and disappointed by his former ally's political conversion, and worried about the divisiveness of a sectional party organized around abolitionism. Van Buren was joined on the "Free Soil Party's ticket by "Charles Francis Adams Sr., son of former President and prominent Whig "John Quincy Adams. Polk did not participate in the electoral campaign, as he believed doing so would be unpresidential; many members of his cabinet, however, did campaign for Van Buren.
In the election, Taylor won 47.3% of the popular vote and a majority of the electoral vote, giving the Whigs control of the presidency. Cass won 42.5% of the vote, while Van Buren finished with 10.1% of the popular vote, more than any other "third party presidential candidate at that time. Despite the increasingly polarizing slavery debate, Taylor and Cass both won a mix of northern and southern states. However, much of Van Buren's support came from northern Democrats. Polk was very disappointed by the outcome as he had a low opinion of Taylor, seeing the general as someone with poor judgment and few opinions. Polk left office on March 4, 1849, and departed Washington on March 6.
Polk's time in the "White House took its toll on his health. Full of enthusiasm and vigor when he entered office, Polk left office exhausted by his years of public service. He lost weight and had deep lines on his face and dark circles under his eyes. He is believed to have contracted "cholera in "New Orleans, "Louisiana, on a goodwill tour of the South after leaving the White House. He died of cholera at his new home, "Polk Place, in "Nashville, Tennessee, at 3:15 pm on June 15, 1849, three months after leaving office. He had never joined any church, but received a deathbed Methodist baptism. Initially buried in what is now "Nashville City Cemetery, due to a legal requirement related to his infectious disease death, he was moved to a tomb on the grounds of Polk Place (as specified in his will) less than a year later. Polk's last words illustrate his devotion to his wife: "I love you, Sarah. For all eternity, I love you." She lived at Polk Place for 42 years after his death and died on August 14, 1891. His mother, Jane Knox Polk, died on January 11, 1852. In 1893, the bodies of President and Mrs. Polk were exhumed and relocated to their current resting place on the grounds of the "Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville. Polk Place was demolished in 1900. In March 2017, the Tennessee Senate approved a resolution considered a "first step" toward relocating the Polks' remains to "his father's home in Columbia, Tennessee; in addition to support by state lawmakers, the move also requires approval by the courts and the "Tennessee Historical Commission.
Polk had "the shortest retirement of all U.S. presidents at 103 days. He was the youngest former president to die in retirement at the age of 53 (only "James A. Garfield and "John F. Kennedy, who were both assassinated in office, died at a younger age). Along with "George Washington, "Andrew Johnson, "Chester A. Arthur, "Calvin Coolidge and "Lyndon B. Johnson, he is one of six presidents to have died while his direct successor was in office.
Polk's historic reputation was largely formed by the attacks made on him in his own time. Whig politicians claimed that he was drawn from a well-deserved obscurity. "Sam Houston is said to have observed that Polk was "a victim of the use of water as a beverage". Senator "Tom Corwin of Ohio remarked "James K. Polk, of Tennessee? After that, who is safe?" The Republican historians of the nineteenth century inherited this view. Polk was a compromise between the Democrats of the North, like "David Wilmot and "Silas Wright, and Southern plantation owners led by "John C. Calhoun. The Northern Democrats thought that when they did not get their way, it was because he was the tool of the slaveholders, and the conservatives of the South insisted that he was the tool of the Northern Democrats. These views were long reflected in the historical literature, until "Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and "Bernard De Voto argued that Polk was nobody's tool, but set his own goals and achieved them.
Polk is now recognized, not only as the strongest president between "Andrew Jackson and "Abraham Lincoln, but also the president who made the United States a coast-to-coast nation. When historians began ranking the presidents in 1948, Polk ranked 10th in "Arthur M. Schlesinger's poll. and has subsequently ranked 8th in Schlesinger's 1962 poll, 11th in the Riders-McIver Poll (1996), 11th in the most recent Siena Poll (2002), 9th in the most recent Wall Street Journal Poll (2005), and 12th in the latest C-Span Poll (2009). He is usually among the highest-ranking one-term presidents.
Polk biographers over the years have sized up the magnitude of Polk's achievements and his legacy, particularly his two most recent. "There are three key reasons why James K. Polk deserves recognition as a significant and influential American president," Walter Borneman wrote. "First, Polk accomplished the objectives of his presidential term as he defined them; second, he was the most decisive chief executive before the "Civil War; and third, he greatly expanded the executive power of the presidency, particularly its war powers, its role as commander-in-chief, and its oversight of the executive branch." President "Harry S. Truman summarized this view by saying that Polk was "a great president. Said what he intended to do and did it."
While Polk's legacy thus takes many forms, the most outstanding is the map of the "continental United States, whose landmass he increased by a third. "To look at that map," "Robert W. Merry concluded, "and to take in the western and southwestern expanse included in it, is to see the magnitude of Polk's presidential accomplishments." Though there were powerful forces compelling Americans to the "Pacific Ocean, some historians, such as Gary Kornblith, have posited that a Clay presidency would have seen the permanent independence of Texas and California.
Nevertheless, Polk's aggressive expansionism has been criticized on ethical grounds. He believed in ""Manifest Destiny" even more than most did. Referencing the Mexican–American War, General "Ulysses S. Grant stated that "I was bitterly opposed to the [Texas annexation], and to this day regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory." Whig politicians, including "Abraham Lincoln and "John Quincy Adams, contended that the "Texas Annexation and the "Mexican Cession enhanced the "pro-slavery factions of the United States. Disputes pertaining to the status of slavery in the territories acquired during the Polk administration led to the "Compromise of 1850, one of the primary factors in the establishment of the "Republican Party and later the beginning of the "American Civil War.
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