JAMES K. POLK | 1845-1849
Often called the first “dark horse” president, James K. Polk was the last of the Jacksonians to sit in the White House, and the last strong president until the Civil War.
Born in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, on November 2, 1795, Polk graduated with honors in 1818 from the University of North Carolina. As a young lawyer he entered politics, served in the Tennessee legislature, and became a friend of Andrew Jackson. In the House of Representatives, he was a chief lieutenant of Jackson in his Bank war. Polk served as speaker between 1835 and 1839, leaving to become governor of Tennessee.
Until circumstances raised his ambitions, he was a leading contender for the Democratic nomination for vice president in 1844. Martin Van Buren, who had been expected to win the Democratic nomination for president, and Henry Clay, who was to be the Whig nominee, both declared themselves opposed to the annexation of Texas. Polk, however, publicly asserted that Texas should be “re-annexed.” The aged Jackson, correctly sensing that the people favored expansionism, urged the choice of a candidate committed to the nation’s “Manifest Destiny.” So the Democrats nominated Polk instead of Van Buren.
Polk linked the Texas issue, popular in the South, with the Oregon issue attractive to the North. He also favored acquiring California. Even before he could take office, Congress passed a joint resolution offering annexation to Texas, thus bequeathing Polk the possibility of war with Mexico. In his stand on Oregon, the President was risking war with Great Britain also. He offered to settle by extending the Canadian boundary along the 49th parallel, from the Rockies to the Pacific. When the British declined, Polk reasserted the American claim to the entire area up to Russian Alaska. The British settled for the 49th parallel, except for Vancouver Island, and the treaty was signed in 1846.
Acquisition of California proved far more difficult. Polk sent an envoy to offer Mexico up to $20,000,000, plus settlement of damage claims owed to Americans, in return for California and the New Mexico country. Polk’s envoy was not received. Polk sent General Zachary Taylor to the disputed area. Mexican troops attacked Taylor’s forces. Congress declared war. American forces won repeated victories and occupied Mexico City. In 1848, Mexico ceded New Mexico and California in return for $15,000,000 and American assumption of the damage claims.
President Polk added a vast area to the United States, but its acquisition precipitated a bitter quarrel between the North and the South over expansion of slavery. Polk, leaving office with his health undermined from hard work, died in June 1849.
Permission granted to re-post by The White House Historical Association