Over the past few months I’ve enjoyed listening to the podcast series Presidential; each episode focuses on one of the presidents of the USA, providing a colourful overview of their life and times. I have been listening in chronological order and am currently at the end of the 19th century, and I have been impressed as to the number of presidents who have become simply forgotten. As such, this post focuses on one of these presidents: James K Polk.

Polk isn’t in the league of complete unknown presidents, such as Millard Fillmore, but he is far from the premier league position of the likes of Washington, Lincoln, and the Roosevelts. However, his one term presidency – 1845 to 1849 – was incredibly important due to the vast expansion of the United States and its influence on the Civil War which broke out a decade after he left office. Such an impact suggests that Polk should have a higher recognition status with those in the 21st century.

Early Life and Entrance into Politics

Polk was born in North Carolina in 1795, before his family took the decision to much westwards into Tennessee. His father was influential in local politics, and his family were Presbyterians and slave-holders. In 1816, Polk was admitted to the University of South Carolina, showing aptitude for discussion and debates, notably learning the art of oratory which would be of such great use to him in later life (and would lead to one of his nicknames: Napoleon of the Stump).

In the 1820s, Polk became a member of the Tennessee legislature, where he supported Andrew Jackson and the Democrats in Jackson’s bid to become president. Such was his affection of the military hero, Polk became known as ‘Young Hickory’ in relation to Jackson’s ‘Old Hickory’. Despite his young age of 29, Polk won a seat to the House of Representatives in Congress in Washington DC, and on taking his seat in 1825 he continued his support for Jackson. After missing out in 1824, Jackson won the 1828 presidential election, leading to Polk becoming a strong ally of the Jackson administration in the House. This was particularly true in the 1830s when Polk became the chairman of Ways and Means – a powerful position in the House of Representatives, before becoming Speaker of the House in 1835.

Due to the growth of opposition in the House – because of the growing unpopularity of Jackson’s successor Martin Van Buren – Polk fought and won election as governor of Tennessee. This path highlighted Polk’s ambition of perhaps fighting for the presidency at a later date. However, Polk was unable to push through his reforms – of regulation of banks and education changes – due to coming to loggerheads with the state legislature. This was coupled with the overall misfortunes of the Democrats and the rise of the Whigs: Van Buren lost the 1840 presidential election, and then Polk himself was defeated – for the first time – in the 1841 governor election. Despite contesting the position in 1843, Polk was beaten yet again.

Running for the Presidency

At this point, Polk switched his attention to gaining the vice-presidential nomination for the Democrats in the 1844 election. He attempted to gain the support of Van Buren for a combined ticket of Van Buren/Polk, however, the former president rebuffed such offers. Polk found luck in the selection of the Whig ticket: the Whig nominee Henry Clay denounced the possibility of territorial expansion in the south into Mexican lands, and stated that Texas would not be annexed. Van Buren followed Clay in this denunciation. This offered Polk the opportunity to step forward as the candidate who proudly announced his belief in Manifest Destiny and in the spread westwards of the USA. Later in 1844, Polk secured the nomination as the Democrat presidential candidate.

The 1844 presidential election campaign was a heated one: both Polk and Clay attacked one another with insults and claims of cowardice and insincerity. Historian Sean Wilentz notes how:

In the South, Democrats played racist politics and smeared Clay as a dark skin-loving abolitionist, while in the North, they defamed him as a debauched, dueling, gambling, womanizing, irreligious hypocrite whose reversal on the bank issue proved he had no principles.

Polk won the election with 49.5% of the vote, beating Clay by only 40,000 votes. He was able to obtain the electoral college votes from various northern states, notably New York and Pennsylvania, due to promising westward expansion to both the North and the South. The South would obtain Texas, whereas the North would obtain Oregon. By campaigning on this, Polk was able to unite all Americans with the drive west as part of their Manifest Destiny.

Polk’s Presidency: 1845-1849

The big drive of Polk’s presidency was in pushing the United States westward and in bringing modernisation to that region in the form of the telegraph and railways. He sought an agreement with Britain over control of Oregon, as well as the purchase of Mexican controlled territory in California.

Polk offered the Mexican government $25 million for the purchase of land that would link the USA with the Pacific. However, Mexico were still feeling bruised over the revolution of Texas in the mid-1830s and its merger with the United States in the mid-1840s, thereby leading to the offer being refused. This pushed the Polk administration to pressure the Mexico with the aim of sparking off a war. 4,000 men were sent into the disputed Rio Grande region, and in 1846 Polk had his wish: Mexican forces had fired on American soldiers.

The Mexican War last two years, with American superiority making its mark. By September 1847 the Mexican capital was in American hands, which led to the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. This stipulated the United States would take vast westward land, including California; as compensation, the Mexicans obtain a $15 million pay-off.

Not everyone was happy with the war: many Northerners were against military conflict and believed that the war was a shameful incident; this is supported by historian Hugh Brogan, who called it a ‘disgraceful affair’. Furthermore, there were others – notably in the South – who wanted further gains from Mexico, with the suggestion that the entire country should be annexed.

Polk Post-Presidency

Polk did not decide to contest the 1848 election. Previously he had stated that he only sought one-term and he kept to this promise. He retired from politics with the plan of living a life of leisure, however, he became ill soon after leaving office, and died at the age of 53 in June 1849. His devoted wife Sarah – who had supported him throughout his career – was by his side, with Polk reputedly saying his dying words: “I love you Sarah, for all eternity, I love you.”

Polk’s one term presidency was an incredibly influential one for the USA. The Mexican War provided further room to settle out in the west, which became apparent with the “gold rush” of the late 1840s and early 1850s in California. The extra land established the USA as a continental power, and inevitably a world power by the time of the early 20th century.

However, the war hastened divisions between the free-states of the North and the slave-owning South, which eventually broke out into the Civil War in 1861. Some historians believe that Polk’s presidency increased sectional tension, and that he did not see the potential fall-out from pursuing his dream of Manifest Destiny over the American continent. Many Northerners condemned the presidency as a slavocracy: interested only in deepening the pockets of the slave-owning South.

Polk’s legacy, then, is a ambiguous one. But this one-term president achieved more than most presidents in the history of the United States. The Mexican War transformed the USA, and as such, Polk merits greater attention than being largely forgotten about by the modern day public.