James Knox Polk
11th President of the United States (March 4, 1845 – March 4, 1849)
Age at inauguration: 49 years old
Vice President: George M. Dallas
- Napoleon of the Stump for his potent oratory during his campaign for the Tennessee state legislature
- Young Hickory because he was a particular protégé of "Old Hickory", Andrew Jackson
Born: James Knox Polk November 2, 1795 Pineville, North Carolina, U.S.
Died: June 15, 1849 (aged 53) Nashville, Tennessee, U.S.
Cause of death: Cholera
Resting Place: Tennessee State Capitol
Father: Samuel Ezekiel Polk
Mother: Jane Gracey Polk
Married: Sarah Childress (m. 1824)
Children: Sarah Polk Fall, unofficial adoption
Education: University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (BA)
Occupation: Lawyer, Farmer (Planter), President of the United States, 11th President of the USA, Politician "11th US President", 11th U.S. President, 11th President of the United States of America
Other Government Positions:
- 9th Governor of Tennessee October 14, 1839 – October 15, 1841
- U.S. House of Representatives from Tennessee March 4, 1833 – March 3, 1839
Presidential Salary: $25,000/year
James K. Polk, 11th President of the USA is George Washington, 1st President of the USA's 8th cousin four times removed!
James Knox Polk (November 2, 1795 – June 15, 1849) was the 11th president of the United States (1845–1849). He previously was speaker of the House of Representatives (1835–1839) and governor of Tennessee (1839–1841). A protégé of Andrew Jackson, he was a member of the Democratic Party and an advocate of Jacksonian democracy. During Polk's presidency, the United States expanded significantly with the annexation of the Republic of Texas, the Oregon Territory, and the Mexican Cession following the American victory in 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, becoming a strong supporter of Jackson. After serving as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, he became Speaker in 1835, the only president to have been Speaker. Polk left Congress to run for governor; he won in 1839, but lost in 1841 and 1843. He was a dark horsecandidate for the Democratic nomination for president in 1844; he entered his party's convention as a potential nominee for vice president, but emerged as a compromise to head the ticket when no presidential candidate could secure the necessary two-thirds majority. In the general election, Polk defeated Henry Clay of the rival Whig Party.
Polk is considered by many the most effective president of the pre–Civil War era, having met during his four-year term every major domestic and foreign policy goal he had set. After a negotiation fraught with risk of war, he reached a settlement with the United Kingdom over the disputed Oregon Country, the territory for the most part being 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 secured a substantial reduction of tariff rates with the Walker tariff of 1846. The same year, he achieved his other major goal, re-establishment of the Independent Treasury system. True to his campaign pledge to serve only one term, Polk left office in 1849 and returned to Tennessee; he died in Nashville, most likely of cholera, three months after leaving the White House.
Scholars have ranked Polk favorably for his ability to promote and achieve the major items on his presidential agenda, but he has been criticized for leading the country into war against Mexico and for exacerbating sectional divides. A slaveholder for most of his adult life, he owned a plantation in Mississippi and bought slaves while President. A major legacy of Polk's presidency is territorial expansion, as the United States reached the Pacific coast and became poised to be a world power.
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. He refused to declare his belief in Christianity at his son's baptism, and the minister refused to baptize young James. Nevertheless, James' 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," according to James A. Rawley's American National Biography article.
In 1803, Ezekiel Polk led four of his adult children and their families to the Duck River area in what is now Maury County, Tennessee; 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 already served as a judge and in Congress. James learned from the political talk around the dinner table; both Samuel and Ezekiel were strong supporters of President Thomas Jefferson and opponents of the Federalist Party.
Polk suffered from frail health as a child, a particular disadvantage in a frontier society. His father took him to see prominent Philadelphia physician Dr. Philip Syng Physick for urinary stones. The journey was broken off by James's severe pain, and Dr. Ephraim McDowell of Danville, Kentucky, operated to remove them. No anesthetic was available except brandy. The operation was successful, but it might have left James impotent or sterile, as he had no children. He recovered quickly, and became more robust. His father offered to bring him into one of his businesses, but he wanted an education and enrolled at a Presbyterian academy in 1813. He became a member of the Zion Church near his home in 1813, and enrolled in the Zion Church Academy. He then entered Bradley Academy in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where he proved a promising student.
In January 1816, Polk was admitted into the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as a second-semester sophomore. The Polk family had connections with the university, then a small school of about 80 students; Samuel was its land agent in Tennessee and his cousin William Polk was a trustee. Polk's roommate was William Dunn Moseley, who became the first Governor of Florida. Polk joined the Dialectic Society where he took part in debates, became its president, and learned the art of oratory. In one address, he warned that some American leaders were flirting with monarchical ideals, singling out Alexander Hamilton, a foe of Jefferson. Polk graduated with honors in May 1818.
After graduation, Polk returned to Nashville, Tennessee to study law under renowned trial attorney Felix Grundy, who became his first mentor. On September 20, 1819, he was elected clerk of the Tennessee State Senate, which then sat in Murfreesboro and to which Grundy had been elected. He was re-elected clerk in 1821 without opposition, and continued to serve until 1822. In June 1820, he was admitted to the Tennessee bar, and his first case was to defend his father against a public fighting charge; he secured his release for a one-dollar fine. He opened an office in Maury County and was successful as a lawyer, due largely to the many cases arising from the Panic of 1819, a severe depression. His law practice subsidized his political career.
Governor of Tennessee
In 1835, the Democrats had lost the governorship of Tennessee for the first time in their 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 as governor. The fact that Polk was the one called upon to "redeem" Tennessee 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 bested 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, hastening 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, seeking 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, and attempting to introduce them into white society. 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. 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 his politicking to secure the replacement of Tennessee's two Whig U.S. senators with 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, and his lighthearted tone at campaign debates was 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.
Election of 1844 - Democratic nomination
Despite his loss, Polk was determined to become the next Vice President of the United States, seeing it as a path to the presidency. Van Buren was the frontrunner for the 1844 Democratic nomination, and Polk engaged in a careful campaign to become his running mate. The former president faced opposition from Southerners who feared his views on slavery, while his 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 backed Calhoun's candidacy, Westerners rallied around Senator Lewis Cass of Michigan, and former Vice President Johnson also maintained a strong following among Democrats. Jackson assured Van Buren by letter that Polk in his campaigns for governor had "fought the battle well and fought it alone". Polk hoped to gain Van Buren's support, hinting in a letter that a Van Buren/Polk ticket could carry Tennessee, 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. With the republic 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 a breakaway province, and threatened war if the United States annexed it. Jackson, as president, 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 one 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. Van Buren did this because he feared losing his base of support in the Northeast, but his supporters in the old Southwest 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 wrote sadly to Van Buren that no candidate who opposed annexation could be elected, and decided Polk was the best person 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 was at first startled, calling the plan "utterly abortive", but he agreed to accept it. Polk immediately wrote to instruct his lieutenants at the convention to work for his nomination as president.
Despite Jackson's quiet efforts on his behalf, Polk was skeptical that he could win. Nevertheless, because of 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, 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 nominee needed two-thirds 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 had also received votes on the first ballot, and Cass took the lead on the fifth ballot. After seven ballots, the convention remained 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, 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 candidate. 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 via telegraph. Having by proxy declined an almost certain presidential nomination, Wright would not accept the second place. Senator Robert J. Walker of Mississippi, a close Polk ally, suggested former senator George M. Dallas of Pennsylvania. Dallas was acceptable enough to all factions, and gained the vice presidential 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". Whigs mocked Polk with the chant "Who is James K. Polk?", affecting never to have heard of him. Though he had experience as Speaker of the House and Governor of Tennessee, all previous presidents 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, although 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, Clay recognized that Polk could unite the Democrats.
Rumors of Polk's nomination reached Nashville on June 4, much to Jackson's delight; they were substantiated later that day. The dispatches were sent on to Columbia, arriving the same 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. Wright was embittered by what he called the "foul plot" against Van Buren, and demanded assurances that Polk had played no part; it was only after Polk professed that he had remained loyal to Van Buren that Wright supported his campaign. Following the custom of the time that presidential candidates avoid electioneering 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 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 manufacturers. 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 views regarding 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.
Another 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 the Cabinet, that he knew would be shown to Tyler, stating that the President's supporters would be welcomed back into the Democratic fold. Jackson wrote that once Tyler withdrew, many Democrats would embrace him for his pro-annexation stance. The former president 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 in August.
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 anti-annexation 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 printed it without labeling it as fiction, and inserted a sentence alleging that the traveler had seen forty slaves who had been sold by Polk after being branded with his initials. The item was withdrawn by the Chronicle when challenged by the Democrats, but it 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, John Eisenhower, in his journal article on the election, stated that the smear came too late to be effectively rebutted, and likely cost Polk Ohio. Southern newspapers, on the other hand, went far in defending Polk, one Nashville newspaper alleging that his slaves preferred their bondage to freedom. Polk himself implied to newspaper correspondents that the only slaves he owned had either been inherited or had been purchased from relatives in financial distress; this paternalistic image was also painted by surrogates like Gideon Pillow. This was not true, though not known at the time; by then he had bought over thirty slaves, both from relatives and others, mainly for the purpose of procuring labor for his Mississippi cotton plantation.
There was no uniform election day in 1844; states voted between November 1 and 12. Polk won the election with 49.5% of the popular vote and 170 of the 275 electoral votes. 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.
Polk set four clearly defined goals for his administration:
- Reestablish the Independent Treasury System—the Whigs had abolished the one created under Van Buren.
- Reduce tariffs.
- Acquire some or all of the Oregon Country.
- Acquire California and its harbors from Mexico.
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.
Annexation of Texas
The annexation resolution signed by Tyler gave the president the choice of asking Texas to approve annexation, or reopening negotiations; Tyler immediately sent a messenger to the U.S. representative in Texas, Andrew Jackson Donelson, choosing the former option. Thus, Polk's first major decision in office was whether to recall Tyler's courier to Texas.
Though it was within Polk's power to recall the messenger, he chose to allow him to continue, with the hope that Texas would accept the offer. He also sent Congressman Archibald Yell of Arkansas as his personal emissary, taking his private assurance that the United States would defend Texas, and would fix its southern border at the Rio Grande, as claimed by Texas, rather than at the Nueces River, as claimed by Mexico. Polk retained Donelson in his post, and the diplomat sought to convince Texas' leaders to accept annexation under the terms proposed by the Tyler administration. Though public sentiment in Texas favored annexation, some 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 it 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 that nation, which had never recognized Texan independence.
Mexican-American War - Road to war
Following the Texan ratification of annexation in 1845, both Mexicans and Americans saw conflict as a likely possibility. Polk began preparations for a potential war with Mexico over Texas, sending an army led by Brigadier General Zachary Taylor into Texas. Taylor and Commodore David Conner of the U.S. Navy, commanding American ships off the Mexican coast, were both ordered to avoid provoking a war, while preparing for conflict, and to respond to any Mexican aggression.Although Polk had the military prepare for war, he did not believe it would come to that; he thought Mexico would give in under duress.
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 New Mexico and California for $20–40 million, as well as securing Mexico's agreement to a Rio Grande border. Slidell arrived in Mexico City in December 1845. Mexican President José Joaquín de Herrera was unwilling to receive him because of the hostility of the public towards the United States. Slidell's ambassadorial credentials were refused by a Mexican council of government, and Herrara soon thereafter was deposed by a military coup led by General Mariano Paredes, a hard-liner who pledged to take back Texas from the United States. Dispatches from Slidell and from the U.S. consul in Mexico City, John Black, made clear their views that U.S. aims for territorial expansion could not be accomplished without war.
Taylor's instructions were to repel any incursion by Mexico north of the Rio Grande, but initially, his army did not advance further than Corpus Christi, at the mouth of the Nueces. On January 13, 1846, Polk ordered Taylor to proceed to the Rio Grande, though it took him time to prepare for the march. Polk was convinced that sending Taylor to the Nueces Strip would prompt war; even if it did not, he was prepared to have Congress declare it. As he waited, Polk considered supporting a potential coup led by the exiled Mexican General Antonio López de Santa Anna with the hope that Santa Anna would sell parts of California.
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 on April 25 ended in the death or capture of dozens of American soldiers, and became known as the Thornton Affair. Word did not reach Washington until May 9, and Polk immediately convened the Cabinet and obtained their approval of his plan to send a war message to Congress on the ground that Mexico had, as Polk put it in his message, "shed American blood on the American soil". 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.
The House overwhelmingly approved a resolution declaring war and authorizing the president to accept 50,000 volunteers into the military. Some of those voting in favor were unconvinced that the U.S. had just cause to go to war, but feared to be deemed unpatriotic. 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, with Calhoun abstaining, marking the beginning of the Mexican–American War.
Course of the war
Polk distrusted the two senior officers, Major General Winfield Scott and Taylor, as both were Whigs, and would have replaced them with Democrats, but felt Congress would not approve it. He offered Scott the position of top commander in the war, which the general accepted. Polk and Scott already knew and disliked each other: the President made the appointment despite the fact that Scott had sought his party's presidential nomination in 1840. Polk came to believe that Scott was too slow in getting himself and his army away from Washington and to the Rio Grande, and was outraged to learn Scott was using his influence in Congress to defeat the administration's plan to expand the number of generals. The news of Taylor's victory at Resaca de la Palma arrived then, and Polk decided to have Taylor take command in the field, and Scott to remain in Washington. Polk also ordered Commodore Conner to allow Santa Anna to return to Mexico from his exile in Havana, 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, without firing a shot. Almost simultaneously, Commodore Robert F. Stockton landed in Los Angeles and proclaimed the capture of California. After American forces put down a revolt, the United States held effective control of New Mexico and California. Nevertheless, 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.
The initial public euphoria over the victories at the start of the war slowly dissipated. In August 1846, Polk asked Congress to appropriate $2 million as a down payment for the potential purchase of Mexican lands. Polk's request ignited opposition, as he had never before made public his desire to annex parts of Mexico (aside from lands claimed by Texas). It was unclear whether such newly acquired lands would be slave or free, and there was angry sectional debate. A freshman Democratic Congressman, David Wilmot of Pennsylvania, previously a firm supporter of Polk's administration, offered an amendment to the bill—the "Wilmot Proviso"—that would ban slavery in any land acquired using the money. The appropriation bill, with the Wilmot Proviso attached, passed the House, but died in the Senate. This discord cost Polk's party, as Democrats lost control of the House in the 1846 elections. In early 1847, though, Polk was successful in passing a bill raising further regiments, and he also finally won approval for the appropriation.
In July 1846, American envoy Alexander Slidell Mackenzie had met with Santa Anna, offering terms by which the US would pay to acquire San Francisco Bay and other parts of Alta California. Santa Anna seemed receptive, but after returning to Mexico, taking control of the government, he stated that he would fight against the Americans, and placed himself at the head of the army. This caused Polk to harden his position on Mexico, and he ordered an American landing at Veracruz, the most important Mexican port on the Gulf of Mexico. From there, troops were to march to Mexico City, which it was hoped would end the war. Continuing to advance in northeast Mexico, Taylor defeated a Mexican army led by Ampudia in the September 1846 Battle of Monterrey, but allowed Ampudia's forces to withdraw from the town, much to Polk's consternation. Polk believed Taylor had not aggressively pursued the enemy, and reluctantly offered command of the Veracruz expedition to Scott.
The lack of trust Polk had in Taylor was returned by the Whig general, who feared the partisan president was trying to destroy him. Accordingly, Taylor disobeyed orders to remain near Monterrey. In March 1847, Polk learned that Taylor had continued to march south, capturing the northern Mexican town of Saltillo. Continuing beyond Saltillo, Taylor's army decimated a larger Mexican force, led by Santa Anna, in the Battle of Buena Vista. Mexican casualties were five times that of the Americans, and the victory made Taylor even more of a military hero in the public's eyes, though Polk preferred to credit the bravery of the soldiers rather than the Whig general. In March 1847, 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 accompany Scott's army and negotiate a peace treaty with Mexican leaders. Trist was instructed 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, as he advanced towards Mexico City, Scott defeated Santa Anna at the Battle of Contreras and the Battle of Churubusco. With the Americans at the gates of Mexico City, Trist negotiated with commissioners, but the Mexicans were willing to give up little. Scott prepared to take Mexico City, which he did in mid-September. In the United States, a heated political debate emerged regarding how much of Mexico the United States should seek to annex, 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. War opponents were also active; Whig Congressman Abraham Lincoln of Illinois introduced the "exact spot" resolutions, calling on Polk to state exactly where American blood had been shed on American soil to start the war, but the House refused to consider them.
Peace: the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo
Frustrated by a lack of progress in negotiations, Polk ordered Trist to return to Washington, but the diplomat, when the notice of recall arrived in mid-November 1847, decided to remain, writing a lengthy letter to Polk the following month to justify his decision. Polk considered having Butler, designated as Scott's replacement, forcibly remove him from Mexico City. Though outraged by Trist's decision, Polk decided to allow him some time to negotiate a treaty.
Throughout January 1848, Trist regularly met with officials in Mexico City, though at the request of the Mexicans, the treaty signing took place in Guadalupe Hidalgo, a small town near Mexico City. Trist was willing to allow Mexico to keep Baja California, as his instructions allowed, but successfully haggled for the inclusion of the important harbor of San Diego in a cession of Alta California. Provisions included the Rio Grande border 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, and, after the Cabinet met on the 20th, decided he had no choice but to accept it. If he turned it down, with the House by then controlled by the Whigs, there was no assurance Congress would vote funding to continue the war. Both Buchanan and Walker dissented, wanting more land from Mexico, a position with which the President was sympathetic, though he considered Buchanan's view motivated by his ambition.
Some senators opposed the treaty because they wanted to take no Mexican territory; others hesitated because of the irregular nature of Trist's negotiations. Polk waited in suspense for two weeks as the Senate considered it, sometimes hearing that it would likely be defeated, and that Buchanan and Walker were working against it. He was relieved when the two Cabinet officers lobbied on behalf of the treaty. On March 10, the Senate ratified the treaty in a 38–14 vote, on a vote that cut across partisan and geographic lines. The Senate made some modifications to the treaty before ratification, and Polk worried that the Mexican government would reject them. On June 7, Polk learned that Mexico had ratified the treaty. Polk declared the treaty in effect as of July 4, 1848, thus ending the war. With the acquisition of California, Polk had accomplished all four of his major presidential goals. With the exception of the territory acquired by the 1853 Gadsden Purchase, the territorial acquisitions under Polk established the modern borders of the Contiguous United States.
Postwar and the territories
When Congress reconvened in December 1848, Polk asked it in his annual message to establish territorial governments in California and New Mexico, a task made especially urgent by the onset of the California Gold Rush.The divisive issue of slavery blocked any such legislation, though congressional action continued until the final hours of Polk's term. When the bill was amended to have the laws of Mexico apply to the southwest territories until Congress changed them (thus effectively banning slavery), Polk made it clear that he would veto it, considering it the Wilmot Proviso in another guise. It was not until the Compromise of 1850 that the matter of the territories was resolved.
Polk's ambassador to the Republic of New Granada, Benjamin Alden Bidlack, negotiated the Mallarino–Bidlack Treaty. 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 for a quicker journey 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 rights granted under the Mallarino-Bidlack Treaty as a justification for its military interventions in Latin America through the remainder of 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, a large sum at the time for one territory, equal to $2.9 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 profits in Cuba (notably in sugar, molasses, rum and tobacco), and thus the Spanish government rejected Saunders's overtures. Though Polk was eager to acquire Cuba, he refused to support the filibuster expedition of Narciso López, who sought to invade and take over the island as a prelude to annexation.
Domestic policy - Fiscal policy
Polk's other major domestic initiative was the lowering of the tariff. Polk directed Secretary of the Treasury Robert Walker to draft a new and lower tariff, which Polk submitted to Congress. After intense lobbying 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 July 1846. Dallas, although from protectionist Pennsylvania, voted for the bill, having decided his best political prospects lay in supporting the administration. Polk signed the Walker Tariff into law, substantially reducing the rates that had been set by the Tariff of 1842. The reduction of tariffs in the United States and the repeal of the Corn Laws in Great Britain led to a boom in Anglo-American trade.
Development of the country
Congress passed the Rivers and Harbors Bill in 1846 to provide $500,000 to improve port facilities, but Polk vetoed it. Polk believed that the bill was unconstitutional because it unfairly favored particular areas, including ports that had no foreign trade. Polk considered internal improvements to be matters for the states, and feared that passing the bill would encourage legislators to compete for favors for their home district—a type of corruption that he felt would spell doom to the virtue of the republic. In this regard he followed his hero Jackson, who had vetoed the Maysville Road Bill in 1830 on similar grounds.
Opposed by conviction to Federal funding for internal improvements, Polk stood strongly against all such bills. Congress, in 1847, passed another internal improvements bill; he pocket vetoed it and sent Congress a full veto message when it met in December. Similar bills continued to advance in Congress in 1848, though none reached his desk. When he came to the Capitol to sign bills on March 3, 1849, the last day of the congressional session and his final full day in office, he feared that an internal improvements bill would pass Congress, and he brought with him a draft veto message. The bill did not pass, so it was not needed, but feeling the draft had been ably written, he had it preserved among his papers.
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. Nevertheless, 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 he signed the bill.
Despite Polk's anger at Buchanan, he eventually offered the Secretary of State the seat, but Buchanan, after some indecision, turned it down. Polk subsequently nominated Robert Cooper Grier of Pittsburgh, who won confirmation. Justice Woodbury died in 1851, but Grier served until 1870 and in the slavery case of Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) wrote an opinion stating that slaves were property and could not sue.
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.
Election of 1848
New York Democrats remained bitter because of what they deemed shabby treatment of Van Buren in 1844, and the former president had drifted from the party in the years since. Many of Van Buren's faction of the party, the Barnburners, were younger men who strongly opposed the spread of slavery, a position with which, by 1848, Van Buren agreed. Senator Cass was a strong expansionist, and slavery might find new fields under him; accordingly the Barnburners bolted the Democratic National Convention upon his nomination, and, in June, joined by anti-slavery Democrats from other states, they held a convention, nominating Van Buren for president. Polk was surprised and disappointed by his former ally's political conversion, and worried about the divisiveness of a sectional party organized around abolitionism. Polk did not give speeches for Cass, remaining at his desk at the White House. He did remove some Van Buren supporters from federal office during the campaign.
In the election, Taylor won 47.3% of the popular vote and a majority of the electoral vote. Cass won 42.5% of the vote, while Van Buren finished with 10.1% of the popular vote, much of his support coming from northern Democrats. Polk was disappointed by the outcome as he had a low opinion of Taylor, seeing the general as someone with poor judgment and few opinions on important public matters. Nevertheless, Polk observed tradition and welcomed President-elect Taylor to Washington, hosting him at a gala White House dinner. Polk departed the White House on March 3, leaving behind him a clean desk, though he worked from his hotel or the Capitol on last-minute appointments and bill signings. He attended Taylor's inauguration on March 5 (March 4, the presidential inauguration day until 1937, fell on a Sunday, and thus the ceremony was postponed a day), and though he was unimpressed with the new President, wished him the best.
Post-presidency, death and interments
James and Sarah Polk progressed down the Atlantic coast, and then westward through the Deep South. He was enthusiastically received and banqueted. By the time the Polks reached Alabama, he was suffering from a bad cold, and soon became concerned by reports of cholera—a passenger on Polk's riverboat died of it, and it was rumored to be common in New Orleans, but it was too late to change plans. Worried about his health, he would have departed the city quickly, but was overwhelmed by Louisiana hospitality. Several passengers on the riverboat up the Mississippi died of the disease, and Polk felt so ill that he went ashore for four days, staying in a hotel. A doctor assured him he did not have cholera, and Polk made the final leg, arriving in Nashville on April 2 to a huge reception.
Polk's funeral was held at the McKendree Methodist Church in Nashville. Initially he was 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. Sarah Polk lived at Polk Place for 42 years after his death and died on August 14, 1891.
In 1893, the bodies of James and Sarah Polk were 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 the family home in Columbia; as well as support by state lawmakers, the move requires approval by the courts and the Tennessee Historical Commission.
Polk and slavery
Adding to the inherited slaves, in 1831, Polk purchased five more, mostly buying them in Kentucky, and expending $1,870; the youngest had a recorded age of 11. As older children sold for a higher price, slave sellers routinely lied about age. Between 1834 and 1835, he bought five more, aged from 2 to 37, the youngest a granddaughter of the oldest. The amount expended was $2,250. In 1839, he bought eight slaves from his brother William at a cost of $5,600. This represented three young adults and most of a family, though not including the father, whom James Polk had previously owned, and who had been sold to a slave trader as a chronic runaway.
The expenses of four campaigns (three for governor, one for the presidency) in six years kept Polk from making more slave purchases until after he was living in the White House. In an era when the presidential salary was expected to cover wages for the White House servants, Polk replaced them with slaves from his home in Tennessee. Polk did not purchase slaves with his presidential salary, likely for political reasons. Instead, he reinvested earnings from his plantation in the purchase of slaves, enjoining secrecy on his agent: "that as my private business does not concern the public, you will keep it to yourself".
Polk saw the plantation as his route to a comfortable existence after his presidency for himself and his wife; he did not intend to return to the practice of law. Hoping the increased labor force would increase his retirement income, he purchased seven slaves in 1846, through an agent, aged roughly between 12 and 17. The 17 year old and one of the 12 year olds were purchased together at an estate sale; the agent within weeks resold the younger boy to Polk's profit. The year 1847 saw the purchase of nine more. Three he purchased from Gideon Pillow, and his agent purchased six slaves, aged between 10 and 20. By the time of the purchase from Pillow, the Mexican War had begun and Polk sent payment with the letter in which he offered Pillow a commission in the Army. The purchase from Pillow was a slave Polk had previously owned and had sold for being a disruption, and his wife and child. None of the other slaves Polk purchased as President, all younger than 20, came with a parent, and as only in the one case were two slaves bought together, most likely none had an accompanying sibling as each faced life on Polk's plantation.
Discipline for those owned by Polk varied over time. At the Tennessee plantation, he employed an overseer named Herbert Biles, who was said to be relatively indulgent. Biles's illness in 1833 resulted in Polk replacing him with Ephraim Beanland, who tightened discipline and increased work. Polk backed his overseer, returning runaways who complained of beatings and other harsh treatment, "even though every report suggested that the overseer was a heartless brute". Beanland was hired for the Mississippi plantation, but was soon dismissed by Polk's partner, who deemed Beanland too harsh as the slaves undertook the arduous task of clearing the timber from the new plantation so it could be used for cotton farming. His replacement was discharged after a year for being too indulgent; the next died of dysentery in 1839. Others followed, and it was not until 1845 that Polk found a satisfactory overseer, John Mairs, who remained the rest of Polk's life and was still working at the plantation for Sarah Polk in 1860, when the widow sold a half-share in many of her slaves. There had been a constant stream of runaways under Mairs' predecessors, many seeking protection at the plantation of Polk relatives or friends; only one ran away between the time of Mairs' hiring and the end of 1847, but the overseer had to report three absconded slaves (including the one who had fled earlier) to Polk in 1848 and 1849.
Polk's will, dated February 28, 1849, a few days before the end of his presidency, contained the nonbinding expectation that his slaves were to be freed when both he and Sarah Polk were dead. The Mississippi plantation was expected to be the support of Sarah Polk during her widowhood. Sarah Polk lived until 1891, but the slaves were freed in 1865 by the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States. By selling a half-interest in the slaves in 1860, Sarah Polk had given up the sole power to free them, and it is unlikely that her new partner, having paid $28,500 for a half-interest in the plantation and its slaves, would have allowed the laborers to go free had she died while slavery was legal.
Like Jackson, Polk saw the politics of slavery as a side issue compared to more important matters such as territorial expansion and economic policy. 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. Polk did support the expansion of slavery's realm, with his views informed by his own family's experience of settling Tennessee, bringing slaves with them. He believed in Southern rights, meaning both the right of slave states not to have that institution interfered with by the Federal government, and the right of individual Southerners to bring their slaves with them into the new territory. 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.
On March 4, 2017, new tombstones for three of his slaves, Elias Polk, Mary Polk and Matilda Polk, were placed in the Nashville City Cemetery. Elias and Mary Polk both survived slavery, dying in the 1880s; Matilda Polk died still in slavery in 1849, at the age of about 110.
Legacy and historical view
Borneman deemed Polk the most effective president prior to the Civil War, and noted that Polk expanded the power of the presidency, especially in its power as commander in chief and its oversight over the Executive Branch. Steven G. Calabresi and Christopher S. Yoo, in their history of presidential power, praised Polk's conduct of the Mexican War, "it seems unquestionable that his management of state affairs during this conflict was one of the strongest examples since Jackson of the use of presidential power to direct specifically the conduct of subordinate officers."
Harry S. Truman called Polk "a great president. Said what he intended to do and did it." Bergeron noted that the matters that Polk settled, he settled for his time. The questions of the banking system, and of the tariff, which Polk had made two of the main issues of his presidency, were not significantly revised until the 1860s. Similarly, the Gadsden Purchase, and that of Alaska (1867), were the only major U.S. expansions until the 1890s.
Paul H. Bergeron wrote in his study of Polk's presidency: "Virtually everyone remembers Polk and his expansionist successes. He produced a new map of the United States, which fulfilled a continent-wide vision." "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." Amy Greenberg, in her history of the Mexican War, found Polk's legacy to be more than territorial, "during a single brilliant term, he accomplished a feat that earlier presidents would have considered impossible. With the help of his wife, Sarah, he masterminded, provoked and successfully prosecuted a war that turned the United States into a world power." Borneman noted that in securing this expansion, Polk did not consider the likely effect on Mexicans and Native Americans, "That ignorance may well be debated on moral grounds, but it cannot take away Polk's stunning political achievement." James A. Rawley wrote in his American National Biography piece on Polk, "he added extensive territory to the United States, including Upper California and its valuable ports, and bequeathed a legacy of a nation poised on the Pacific rim prepared to emerge as a superpower in future generations".
Historians have criticized Polk for not perceiving that his territorial gains set the table for civil war. Pletcher stated that Polk, like others of his time, failed "to understand that sectionalism and expansion had formed a new, explosive compound". Fred I. Greenstein, in his journal article on Polk, noted that Polk "lacked a far-seeing awareness of the problems that were bound to arise over the status of slavery in the territory acquired from Mexico" William Dusinberre, in his volume on Polk as slave owner, suggested "that Polk's deep personal involvement in the plantation slavery system ... colored his stance on slavery-related issues".
Greenberg noted that Polk's war served as the training ground for that later conflict:
The conflict Polk engineered became the transformative event of the era. It not only changed the nation but also created a new generation of leaders, for good and for ill. In the military, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, Stonewall Jackson, George Meade, and Jefferson Davis all first experienced military command in Mexico. It was there that they learned the basis of the strategy and tactics that dominated the Civil War.
Martin Van Buren