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James K. Polk Biography

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James K. Polk (November 2, 1795 – June 15, 1849) was the first “dark horse” candidate elected to the presidency and is the only former Speaker of the House to become President. Polk represented the end of an era, as many historians consider him the last strong President prior to the Civil War and the last true Jacksonian President. Because the Democrats were sharply divided, Polk promised to be a one-term President if elected, but he was not about to let those four years go to waste. George Bancroft, Polk’s Secretary of the Navy, later noted that Polk went into office with four objectives: restoration of the Independent Treasury System; lowering of tariffs; acquisition of at least part of the Oregon Country from Great Britain; and acquisition of California and New Mexico from Mexico. It was not always easy, but he achieved all of these goals.

Polk was born in present-day Pineville, North Carolina; he moved with his family to Tennessee in 1806. After gaining admission to the bar in 1820, he benefited greatly from the Panic of 1819, taking on numerous debt-related cases. By this point, he had already entered state-level politics in Tennessee and was soon to join the local militia. In 1823, he helped to elect Andrew Jackson to the US Senate, and in 1825, Polk himself entered the US House of Representatives. The 29-year-old Polk, unusually young for a US Representative, boldly called for the abolition of the Electoral College. He became Speaker of the House in 1835, advocating for the policies of Presidents Jackson and Van Buren. He left the House in 1839 and served two years as Governor of Tennessee.

Originally considered a possible Vice Presidential candidate for the Election of 1844, Polk’s profile got a boost due to his strong stances on expansion and, on Jackson’s recommendation, Polk was nominated as the Democratic candidate for President – beating assumed frontrunner Martin Van Buren in the process. With expansion taking center stage in the race, Polk defeated Whig Henry Clay. When inaugurated the following March, the 49-year-old Polk was America’s youngest President yet.

Lame duck President Tyler pressed Congress to pass a joint resolution annexing Texas, which stole some of Polk’s thunder and set him up for a potential war with Mexico. Things worsened when Polk sent John Slidell to Mexico to purchase California and New Mexico, only for Mexico to send Slidell back. Polk deployed troops under General Zachary Taylor to the disputed border area and, the story goes, Mexican forces attacked; Whigs were not necessarily convinced that American blood had been shed on American soil, hence Abraham Lincoln’s famous demand, “Show me the spot!” But war ensued, Polk got California and New Mexico, and Taylor became the next President – on the Whig ticket, no less!

The Oregon issue proved somewhat easier to settle, as neither Polk nor the British really wanted to go to war over it. After tough negotiations, both sides agreed to divide the territory along the 49th parallel. The acquisition of the slavery-free Oregon Country and slavery-friendly Texas was intended as a balancing act, but Polk could not please everyone. He himself came from a slave-owning family and owned slaves; though Polk’s will freed his slaves upon the death of his wife, the federal government ultimately liberated all slaves first.

Polk accomplished a lot in office, but he did so at the expense of his health. He died a mere three months after his term ended. It’s worth noting that his Secretary of State James Buchanan became America’s 15th President.


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