James Knox Polk
James Knox Polk was born in Mecklenburg, North Carolina in 1795. His father, Samuel Polk, and mother, Jane Knox, owned a small farm on Sugar Creek near Charlotte. In 1806 the family followed Samuel's father, Ezekiel Polk, across the Smokey Mountains to the Tennessee wilderness where they helped found the town of Columbia.
As a youngster, James was described as being frail and sickly. At age seventeen he was diagnosed as suffering from urinary stones. He underwent a very difficult, but successful, surgery in Kentucky following which he attended a succession of religious schools in Tennessee. In 1816 he was accepted into the University of North Carolina as a sophomore. He did well and gave the commencement address at his graduation in 1818.
Following university, Polk studied law with Felix Grundy in his Nashville, Tennessee, law firm. In 1819 Grundy was elected to the state legislature and, with Grundy's assistance, Polk was hired as clerk to the state senate. Polk passed the Tennessee bar exam in 1820 and started practicing law immediately thereafter. That same year he joined the Masons and the following year was commissioned captain in the local militia. (He later advanced to the rank of colonel.) In 1823 Polk was elected to the Tennessee state legislature.
On January 1, 1824 Polk married Sarah Childress and in August of that year announced that he was a candidate for Congress. Polk was an admirer of Andrew Jackson and quickly identified his political philosophy with that of Old Hickory. Jackson was defeated in his bid for the presidency in 1828, but Polk won his seat in the House of Representatives where he became a vociferous advocate for Jackson. In 1828 Jackson was elected President and Polk was re-elected to Congress. In December 1835 Polk was elected Speaker of the House of Representatives.
In 1839 Polk left Congress at Jackson's request to run for Governor of Tennessee. He won by a very narrow margin and served one term, but was defeated in two subsequent attempts at re-election. By 1844 Polk was considered by many if not most, political analysts of the day to be without a political future. He was, however, to prove them wrong and in the process to become the first "dark horse candidate" elected President.
The issues that determined the selection of Polk as the Democratic Party candidate for the presidency and his subsequent victory were many, but several were to prove related to the future of the western states. One was the issue of slavery in the twenty six states of the union. (Thirteen were slave states and thirteen were not.) Another was the Texas question. (Texas had declared its independence from Mexico and was soliciting admission to the Union.)
The leading contender to be the Democratic Party candidate in 1844 was Martin Van Buren. Just prior to the Democratic Convention Van Buren issued a statement that he opposed admitting Texas into the Union. A few days later, Henry Clay, the Whig candidate, issued a similar statement. (Neither man wanted the Texas issue debated during the election because it would raise the specter of a change in the balance of power between the states on the issue of slavery.) The public was, however, firmly of the opinion that Texas should be admitted to the Union as quickly as possible. Polk issued a statement that he favored the admission of Texas. In very large part because of this issue, Van Buren failed to get the nomination of his party and after nine votes Polk was selected instead. He went on to win the presidency. During this campaign his supporters christened him "Young Hickory" and Jackson did everything in his power to assist his election.
In January, 1845, president-elect, Polk worked behind the scenes to ensure the passage of Congressional bills that would lead to the annexation of Texas. The new president established his residence in the White House in February 1845 and was sworn in as president in March. He immediately announced that he would only serve for one term and identified four things that he wanted to accomplish during his presidency: lower tariffs, establish an independent treasury, acquire Oregon, and acquire California. (He accomplished all four and, as a result, President Harry Truman ranked him as one of the eight great presidents of the United States.)
Texas was formally admitted to the Union on December 29, 1845 and Polk pushed legislation through Congress that accomplished both his tariff and treasury objectives by the fall of 1846. On the Oregon question Polk threatened war with Great Britain and a compromise settlement was worked out which the Senate approved in June 1846. The Oregon agreement with Great Britain was not recognized by Mexico which felt that it had a legitimate claim to the territory. As a result of the Texas annexation and the Oregon settlement, Polk's relationship with Mexico was severely strained. He tried repeatedly to purchase California, but was consistently rebuffed. Relations quickly deteriorated to the point that Polk's cabinet expected Mexico to attack the United States.
In June 1845, 3,000 U.S Army troops were deployed to Corpus Christi under Brigadier General Zachary Taylor. Corpus Christi was located in territory claimed by both the United States and Mexico. On April 24, 1846, Mexican cavalry ambushed a scouting force under Taylor's command and killed eleven American troopers in this disputed territory. Acting on standing orders from the Secretary of War, "Old Rough and Ready" Taylor immediately crossed the Rio Grande in pursuit of the Mexican force. On May 13, 1846 Congress declared war on Mexico. In February 1847 Taylor's force of 5,000 men routed a Mexican force of 20,000 men at Buena Vista and Taylor was promoted to Major General. In March 1847 Major General Winfield Scott captured Vera Cruz and drove west toward Mexico City which fell to his forces in September 1847.
Both Scott and Taylor were prominent Whigs and they did not get along well with the Democrat in the White House. Another Whig officer, Colonel Stephen W. Kearney did get along well with President Polk. (The difference being that both Scott and Taylor had political ambitions while Kearney did not.) At the outbreak of hostilities with Mexico, Polk promoted Kearney to Brigadier General and gave him the command of the Army of the West. Kearney occupied Santa Fe easily and then moved on to California where he quickly got into a turf war with Commodore Robert Stockton and Colonel John C. Fremont. Polk sided with Kearney, Stockton left California, and Fremont was eventually subjected to court-martial. Hostilities in California ended with the Treaty of Cahuenga in January 1847, but peace negotiations with Mexico continued until the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in February 1848. (The Senate gave it's approval on March 10, 1848.)
In the months leading up to the end of hostilities, criticism of the war increased dramatically in the United States. Abraham Lincoln, John Quincy Adams, Henry David Thoreau, among others, criticized it as being immoral, unjust, and too costly in lives and treasure. (13,000 Americans dead.) On the other side of the argument, Sam Huston and others argued that the United States should annex all of Mexico. Polk stuck to his original objective and negotiated peace accordingly. Combining the Oregon settlement with Great Britain and the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, President Polk had increased the territory of the United States by one third. (Walt Whitman worried about the ability of the United States to maintain control of its new territory while Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels applauded the American action.)
In November 1848 General Taylor was elected President and Polk returned to Nashville where he died on June 15, 1849.