James Knox Polk was the 11th President of the United States.
His term was from 1845 to 1849.
He was able to bring about several positive changes during his time in office. He is one of the few Presidents who did everything in office he claimed he would while campaigning.
He stated during his campaign he would only serve one term and stuck to that promise. His party tried to encourage him to reconsider and run a second time but he declined. His health wasn’t the best at that time and may have played a role in his decision not to run again.
He had an open-door policy at the White House. It wasn’t used before or after his term. Under this policy, any citizen could come to the White House during normal business hours. They could come to voice any concerns they had. He was interested in what the average person thought and how the laws affected them.
Polk truly was a President for the people and this was one of the ways he expressed it. He was an easy-going person, but he didn’t socialize for the fun of it. He didn’t drink at gatherings either. His wife was very social, and the first wife of a President to host Thanksgiving dinner at the White House.
He was often deemed a boring person to hang out with but a remarkable man to discuss politics or the law with.
Polk was born on November 2nd, 1795 in North Carolina. He was the oldest of 10 children.
When he was 11 the family relocated to Tennessee. His father was a prosperous farmer and the children all pitched in. They learned the value of money, hard work, and helping each other from a young age.
The family made a decent living, they weren’t in poverty and they weren’t rich.
Polk struggled with various health issues and ailments as a child. It isn’t known what the underlying cause was. He often dealt with pain and fatigue. He would have bouts of fever for several days at a time.
His parents tried to keep him from being around too many people due to his health. He spent most of his time with his siblings.
He wasn’t able to attend school as a child due to his health. His parents did what they could to educate him. His siblings would often share what they learned at school to help him expand his knowledge.
When he was 17 years old, he had surgery to remove stones in his bladder. It was a serious surgery and it was completed without any anesthesia. The recovery was long and difficult.
Formal Education and Career
His health seemed to improve, but he would struggle with the bouts of fever and fatigue here and there for the rest of his life. He was able to go to college and complete his education while keeping a close eye on his overall health. He graduated at the top of his class from the University of North Carolina. Polk graduated with honors and excelled in math.
He took part in debates and joined some clubs focused on political movements while in college. After graduating with a law degree, he started practicing law in Nashville.
His interest in politics continued to grow. He soon began to meet influential leaders in Tennessee. They liked his ideas and his support for President Jackson.
Polk married in 1824 and the couple worked closely together. They never had any children but she was often in the public eye with her husband. His wife, Sarah, was educated and often helped her husband with political concerns.
She loved to host events and socialize. She often hosted such events at the White House, even though her husband wasn’t thrilled about them. Quite a few people found the President to be hard to approach due to his demeanor, but his wife seemed to be loved by all!
She knew quite a bit about politics, and scholars tend to agree he would have had a hard time becoming President without her by his side. It is widely rumored Polk talked to his wife about different political dilemmas in the White House and some of the solutions implemented were the result of her brainstorming with him.
Sarah was mindful of his health issues, and set limits for him. She would reschedule events if he was dealing with fatigue. She would gather paperwork and documents to go over with him while he rested in bed. She was very dedicated to her husband and one of the most involved First Ladies.
Path to becoming President
Polk became part of the Democratic Party. It was no secret he stood firmly behind President Jackson and his ideas. It wasn’t long before the two were close friends. Polk didn’t have too many people he considered close friends during his life, but this was a friendship both treasured. Jackson encouraged Polk to step into the arena of political office.
Jackson may have had some ulterior motives by doing so. He needed a voice that supported him and would uphold the law.
At the same time, Jackson was known for encouraging those with incentives to take part in politics. He believed the only way to strengthen the country was with the best leadership in place.
With Jackson’s backing and influence, Polk became part of the Tennessee House of Representatives. His time in that office was short though. He moved upward to the role of joining the United States House of Representatives.
He served in that role from 1825 to 1839.
Polk didn’t have his eye on the presidency. He was just as surprised as the rest of the world when he was nominated.
While he was known in political circles, he didn’t have the personality or the clout yet to be in such a position. The Democratic Party was split because of various contenders for their candidate. Among them were Lewis Cass, James Buchanan, and Martin Van Buren. Polk was considered for a possible vice-president role with one of them. Since the party couldn’t come to a decision all agreed on, they shifted their attention to Polk.
They all agreed he had the integrity, the ability, and the principles they were looking for in a presidential candidate.
The telegraph had only been operating for 5 days when news came through it that Polk was their candidate. The common response to that was “who is James K. Polk” but it didn’t take long for people to find out more about him.
Those who knew him from previous political roles respected his ability to speak to a crowd and his dedication to the projects he was involved with.
His campaign wasn’t filled with empty promises. Previous Presidents had danced around the topic of the annexation of Texas. As part of his campaign, he announced it would be done if he was elected. He stated the same about the Oregon Territory. Experts believe it was these two campaign promises that helped him win a close election.
He wasn’t quite 50 when he took office and was the youngest President in history at that point.
New territory was added to the United States under the leadership of Polk. One of the goals was to expand the land between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Polk was able to help make that a reality. Some of the notable acts with this quest include negotiating with the British for the Oregon Territory and the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo.
The Mexican War was declared by Polk in 1846. The war lasted for 2 years and that treaty brought it to an end. The treaty gave the United States 1/3 of the territory that used to belong to Mexico. In parts of it, gold was later found (around areas of Nevada, Colorado, and California).
Such territory is now parts of the following states:
· New Mexico
A treaty with Columbia allowed citizens of the United States to safely and legally cross the Isthmus of Panama. The treaty also gave US ships the right of way when there were times of congestion.
The Walker Tariff Act reduced the percentage of tariff taxes on imports. This helped improve foreign policies and relationships. Some worried it would reduce the federal surplus, but it actually gave the economy a boost.
The idea of the postage stamp came from Polk. It was introduced when he was President. He created the US Naval Academy as a way to further strengthen the powerful stance of the country. He didn’t want it to be vulnerable to attacks.
Polk was careful with his selection of office members and advisers. He kept his relationship with them and members of congress formal. He didn’t get backed into a corner where he owed favors to anyone.
There were times when he was on one side of an issue and his party in Congress was on another side. He typically yielded to the party, showing he respected the way the system was set up to work.
Polk seemed to ignore the issue of slavery; it was the elephant in the room during his presidency. While the controversy had been there with other Presidents, they were either trying to abolish it or to keep it. He didn’t voice an opinion on the topic one way or the other. This created mixed emotions among citizens and even within Congress. Tensions were high regarding slavery at the end of his term.
In his quest to expand the land of the United States, he made an offer to purchase Cuba. He was relentless in this effort, but Spain declined all of his efforts. He was finally told that it was not for sale and it would be seen as a sign of aggression towards Spain if he continued to pursue them about it.
He focused on policies and outcomes, not on communication and socialization. This was considered a failure in the eyes of some scholars. Others argue he was the right man for the role of President. He was a good leader based on strategy and merit, and not on his personality.
He was uncomfortable with small talk but could give a speech that would leave the listeners in awe!
After the Presidency
Polk chooses to only run one term, that was his plan from the beginning. He couldn’t be talked into running a second time, but many historians speculate he would have won. His health was deteriorating fast by that time. He wasn’t able to do much after he left office as he died about 3 months later.
He passed away on June 15th, 1849 at the age of 53. His cause of death was Cholera. His wife lived another 40 years after he passed. She continued to take part in charities and other organizations to help promote the work of her beloved husband.
The Papers of James K. Polk
He was an avid writer and his collection of papers give insights into history, his political life, and the presidency through his eyes. He was candid and honest in his writing, sharing his fears and ideas along the way.
He often wrote about the day-to-day stress being President brought to him and how he often felt that he fell short with his accomplishments in that role.
The papers collected include a variety of the following:
· Family documents
· Financial information
· Journal entries
· Legal documents
The mix of items dates from 1775 to 1891. There are over 20,500 documents with the majority of them covering important events in history he was involved with.
Correspondence includes letters between him and his wife, with Andrew Jackson, and with James Buchanan. The majority of the items have been indexed since 1969 and can be seen online or in books that compile them. It is an interesting piece of history through the eyes of President Polk.