Who is James Polk?

“Who is James K. Polk?” jeered presidential candidate Henry Clay in 1844, when the Democratic nomination went to the dark horse candidate  from Tennessee.

Here you can see Polk’s genuine surprise: “My nomination was wholly unexpected by me,” he writes. Yet if he can heal the Democratic party of its rift, he shall be most happy “to have been the instrument in… effecting so great a good.”

Polk set just four goals for his administration, and he pledged not to seek reelection.  Over the next four years he fulfilled each of his promises, and – perhaps no less impressive – stepped down after just one term. His goals were these:

  • Reduce tariffs
  • Establish an independent Treasury
  • End the dispute with Great Britain over the Oregon Territory
  • Acquire California from Mexico

As Harry S. Truman put it, Polk was “a great president. Said what he intended to do and did it.”

The key to his nomination, victory, and expansionist accomplishments was Texas. Texas had been trying to join the United States since 1836; however the Northern states had no interest in allowing another slave state to enter the Union – as its admission would upset the balance of power in the House and Senate.  Polk was the only candidate in 1844 who favored the annexation of Texas and he offered an interesting compromise: he appeased Northerners by advocating the acquisition of the Oregon Territory from the British; territory which would later form states barring slavery.

You can learn more in this fascinating biography of our 11th president – who died only 103 days after leaving office. Having borne no children, his last words were to his wife: “I love you, Sarah. For all eternity, I love you.”

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