James K. Polk entered the 1844 Democratic Convention as a leading contender for the party’s vice presidential nomination and left it at the top of the ticket. He was far more in tune with the national mood than the party’s anticipated presidential candidate, Martin Van Buren, and was ultimately nominated. How unimpressed were members of the opposing Whig Party? They asked, “Who is James K. Polk?” The election provided the answer: Polk was the 11th president of the United States.
Born in Pineville, N.C., on Nov. 2, 1795, James Knox Polk was the son of a North Carolina farmer and surveyor. When Polk was 10 his family crossed the Appalachian Mountains and moved to the Tennessee frontier. Shortly before turning 17, Polk needed surgery for stones in his urinary bladder. Because anesthesia wouldn’t be invented until he became president, Polk was awake for the procedure, which was performed by noted Kentucky surgeon Ephraim McDowell.
Although he received only 2.5 years of formal schooling in Tennessee, Polk was admitted to the University of North Carolina as a sophomore. After graduating first in the class of 1818, Polk returned to Tennessee intent on becoming a lawyer. He received legal training by working in the office of prominent Nashville, Tenn., trial attorney Felix Grundy and serving as clerk of the Tennessee Senate. Polk was admitted to the bar in 1820 and began a law practice in Columbia, Tenn.
His early professional success inspired Polk to enter politics. The 27-year-old lawyer defeated an incumbent for a seat in the Tennessee Legislature, where he served from 1823-25. During that time Polk began courting Sarah Childress, the daughter of a prominent Murfreesboro, Tenn., merchant and planter. They married on Jan. 1, 1824, and Sarah became an active participant in her husband’s successful campaigns. A passionate supporter of fellow Tennessee Democrat Andrew Jackson’s policies, Polk was elected to the U.S. Congress at age 29. Polk served 14 years in Congress, including two terms as Speaker of the House.
Concerned about the Whig Party’s growing popularity in Tennessee, Polk returned to the state and ran for governor. His campaign was successful, but after serving as governor from 1839-41 he twice failed to be re-elected. Despite these setbacks, Polk remained active in Democratic politics and sought opportunities to revive his career. Party leaders noticed his dedication.
With the 1844 presidential election approaching, both Martin Van Buren and Whig nominee Henry Clay had declared themselves opposed to the annexation of Texas. Polk, however, publicly said that Texas should be “re-annexed” and all of Oregon “re-occupied.” Andrew Jackson correctly believed that the American people favored expansion and called for a candidate committed to the country’s “Manifest Destiny.” Nominated on the ninth ballot at the convention, Polk linked the Texas issue, popular in the South, with the Oregon question, popular in the North. He also favored acquiring California. Polk’s victory made him the first president to be elected before turning 50 as well as the only Speaker of the House to become president.
Before Polk could assume the presidency in 1845, Congress passed a joint resolution offering annexation to Texas. By doing this they granted Polk the possibility of war with Mexico, which soon ended diplomatic relations. Furthermore, Polk’s stand on Oregon seemed to be risking war with Great Britain as well. His party’s 1844 platform claimed the entire Oregon area, from the California boundary northward to a latitude of 54'40', the southern boundary of Russian Alaska, but Polk knew that nothing short of war was likely to get all of Oregon. Neither he nor the British wanted a war, so he offered to settle by extending the Canadian boundary, along the 49th parallel, from the Rockies to the Pacific. The British minister declined, and Polk responded by reasserting America’s claim to the entire area. The British ultimately settled for the 49th parallel, except for the southern tip of Vancouver Island, and the treaty was signed in 1846.
Acquiring California, on the other hand, eventually required military action. Polk sent an envoy to offer Mexico up to $20 million, plus settlement of damage claims owed to Americans, in return for California and the New Mexico country, but because no Mexican leader could cede half his country and still stay in power, Polk’s envoy was not received. Polk then sent Gen. Zachary Taylor to the disputed area on the Rio Grande. The Mexican troops considered this aggression and attacked Taylor’s forces. Congress declared war and supported the military operations, despite much opposition in the North. After American forces won repeated victories and occupied Mexico City, Mexico ceded New Mexico and California in return for $15 million and American assumption of the damage claims in 1848.
In addition to America acquiring more than 800,000 square miles of western territory and extending its boundary to the Pacific Ocean, tariffs were lowered and an independent Federal Treasury was established during Polk’s administration. Polk honored his campaign pledge to serve only one term as president and left office in March 1849. He died of cholera on June 15, 1849, in Nashville, Tenn. At the same time, thousands of Americans were heading to the newly acquired state of California to search for gold.