James Knox Polk was born in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, the eldest of 10 children. His family moved to Tennessee, in 1806. Despite ill health and little formal schooling in his early years, Polk managed to graduate from the University of North Carolina with honors in 1818.
He studied law under Felix Grundy, the leading lawyer in Nashville, then began practice on his own in 1820. He quickly turned to politics and was elected to the state legislature in 1823.
In 1825, Polk was elected to the House of Representatives from Tennessee and served in Congress until 1839, the last four years as Speaker. Polk was a leader of the Jacksonian loyalists and was especially helpful to the president during the Bank War.
Democrats took much of the blame for the depression that followed the Panic of 1837. Polk returned to Tennessee and was elected governor in 1839, but was defeated in two succeeding elections.
Polk emerged as the dark horse Democratic candidate in the Election of 1844, edging out Henry Clay. The campaign was dominated by two expansionist issues the annexation of Texas and the occupation of Oregon.
The question of the Annexation of Texas was settled before Polk took office, when Congress passed a joint resolution and President Tyler signed it into law with three days remaining in his term. In his inaugural address, Polk referred approvingly to the annexation, which he termed "re-annexation" based on the dubious theory that Texas had previously belonged to the United States:
The Republic of Texas has made known her desire to come into our Union, to form a part of our Confederacy and enjoy with us the blessings of liberty secured and guaranteed by our Constitution. Texas was once a part of our countrywas unwisely ceded away to a foreign poweris now independent, and possesses an undoubted right to dispose of a part or the whole of her territory and to merge her sovereignty as a separate and independent state in ours. I congratulate my country that by an act of the late Congress of the United States the assent of this Government has been given to the reunion, and it only remains for the two countries to agree upon the terms to consummate an object so important to both.
Polk as president surprised many by his independence and hard work. He announced four goals for his administration:
Reestablishment of the independent treasury system
The president was able to accomplish all of his stated goals.
However, Polk was not successful with avoiding the Mexican War. It was his plan to attempt to purchase California and New Mexico, which were not heavily populated by Spanish-Mexicans, and to resolve by treaty certain lands that were claimed by Texas. He sent John Slidell to negotiate the questions, but Slidell failed and merely angered the already unhappy Mexicans. At the same time, Zachary Taylor was occupying a portion of the land claimed by both countries. Mexico attacked Taylor and war became unavoidable.
The outcome of the war with Mexico was a great increase in American territory, but the most aggressive of the expansionists were displeased that in his negotiations with Great Britain, Polk had allowed the northern half of the Oregon territory to remain in British hands. He also alienated some midwesterners by vetoing large appropriations for dredging rivers and improving harbors around the Great Lakes.
Polk did not seek to be renominated in 1848 and instead put forward Lewis Cass for the nomination. However, the Democratic Party was split by the rise of the Free-Soilers, which drew off enough votes to deny Cass the presidency.
James K. Polk was the last significant Jacksonian; he was able to enact many Democratic economic ideas, but failed to advance his partys interests on the slavery question. He conducted one of the most tightly focused administrations ever and won admiration even from his critics for his work ethic.
However, the question remains as to whether Polk was a great president who admirably increased American territory and prestige, or was he simply a bullying expansionist who conspired to take lands from a weaker neighbor?
Polk died of cholera in Nashville, Tennessee on June 15, 1849.
---- Selected Quotes ----
Quotes by James K. Polk.
Regarding United States Constitution By the theory of our Government majorities rule, but this right is not an arbitrary or unlimited one. It is a right to be exercised in subordination to the Constitution and in conformity to it. One great object of the Constitution was to restrain majorities from oppressing minorities or encroaching upon their just rights. Minorities have a right to appeal to the Constitution as a shield against such oppression. Inaugural Address, 1845