The administration of James Knox Polk (1795-1849), eleventh president of the United States, saw America at war with Mexico. As a consequence, Polk added more territory to the United States than had any other president except Thomas Jefferson.
James K. Polk was born on Nov. 2, 1795, in Mecklenburg County, N.C. As a child, he moved to an area in Tennessee settled by his grandfather, a land speculator. After graduation from the University of North Carolina in 1818, he studied law under Congressman Felix Grundy and was admitted to the bar in 1820. Elected to the legislature in 1822, Polk became known as an opponent of the state's banks and land speculators. He supported Andrew Jackson, who was an old friend of his father, for the presidency in the election of 1824.
As a Jacksonian, Polk was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1825, becoming a leader of his party. He advocated a strict states'-rights position, emphasizing the desirability of an economical government. As chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee from 1833 to 1835, he supported Jackson's banking policies, including removal of the government's deposits from the Bank of the United States. As a reward for his support, Polk was elected Speaker of the House of Representatives in 1835 and served until 1839. He vastly increased the powers of the Speaker's office by assuming the burden of guiding administrative measures through Congress. He was governor of Tennessee from 1839 until 1841; he was defeated for reelection in 1841 and again in 1843.
Polk received the Democratic nomination for president in 1844; he was the compromise candidate among several contenders. The first "dark horse, " he defeated the better-known Whig nominee, Henry Clay, in an extremely close election. During the campaign Polk skillfully reconciled the various Democratic factions. To attract John C. Calhoun's partisans, Polk adopted an expressionistic platform, emphasizing the incorporation of all the Oregon Territory and the annexation of Texas. Clay's last-minute endorsement of Texas annexation cost him the election, as it forced 15, 000 antislavery Whigs to defect to the Liberty party.
Polk's cabinet, one of the most able of the antebellum period, included Secretary of State James Buchanan, Secretary of the Treasury Robert J. Walker, Secretary of the Navy George Bancroft, and Secretary of War William L. Marcy. They represented most factions of the Democratic party. Their renunciations of all presidential ambitions while in the administration, as well as Polk's decision not to run for a second term, were aimed at limiting friction within the party. This failed because of the alienation of Martin Van Buren from Polk and the commitment of antislavery Democrats to a free-soil policy in the territory acquired from Mexico after 1846.
Polk maintained a tight control over all decisions. As an administrator, he was extremely innovative. Introducing a real executive budget, he tightened up the bookkeeping operations in the various departments, which resulted in a considerable savings of money. His success as president may be determined in part by how well he achieved his goals. In his inaugural address, he set four major tasks for himself: reestablishment of the independent treasury, lowering of the tariff, settlement of the Oregon dispute with England, and acquisition of California. By his retirement in 1849 he had achieved all of these. Passage of the independent treasury completed the hard currency campaign the Democrats had begun more than a decade earlier. The basic feature of this system, in which the government received and paid its debts in specie, remained the dominant element in the American banking system until the Federal Reserve Act in 1913. Polk's commitment to a low tariff resulted in the passage of the Walker Tariff, whose rates were not substantially revised until the Civil War.
The most significant events of Polk's administration occurred in foreign policy. Since 1818 the United States and Great Britain had maintained joint occupation of the Oregon Territory. This solution no longer was workable after Polk, in his presidential campaign, laid claim to the whole region up to the southern boundary of Russian-controlled Alaska. Once he became president, he sought a more amiable solution, suggesting the extension of the 49th parallel, which already divided the United States from Canada east of the Rockies. British rejection of this position led to a minor war scare, lasting until the outbreak of the Mexican War. On the eve of that conflict, the question was settled in approximately the terms suggested by Polk.
After the annexation of Texas, which occurred as a result of a joint resolution of Congress on the last day of John Tyler's administration, Mexico broke off diplomatic relations with the United States. Polk wanted to eliminate all boundary disputes with Mexico, settle claims Americans had against the Mexican government, and acquire California. He hoped that the acquisition of California and Oregon would help to reunite the nation. Polk's emissaries failed to negotiate a treaty. When Mexico expelled John Slidell, the minister to Mexico, Polk decided upon war. He was given his opportunity when Gen. Zachary Taylor was fired upon in territory under dispute with Mexico above the Rio Grande River. The war resolution passed the House of Representatives on May 11, 1846.
War with Mexico
Despite the outbreak of war, Polk hoped to secure California and New Mexico by diplomacy. He financed Antonio López de Santa Ana's return to Mexico after the former dictator promised to negotiate peace. However, Santa Ana took command of the army as soon as he returned home. Another plan to set up a $2 million fund to purchase peace with Mexico met with defeat in Congress.
The war was won on the battlefield, as Polk proved an exceptionally adept commander-in-chief. Taylor advanced south to the heart of Mexico, while Gen. Winfield Scott invaded Mexico through Veracruz. Polk, distrusting both men as potential Whig candidates for president, kept close control over the Army. Scott captured Mexico City in April 1848.
The final diplomatic negotiations were conducted by a State Department clerk who joined Gen. Scott in Mexico City and arranged the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Mexico gave up California and New Mexico as well as all claims to Texas for $15 million. Thus, by the Oregon and Guadalupe Hidalgo treaties, Polk had rounded out the continental United States, except for a small piece in the Southwest, purchased from Mexico in 1853.
Polk's hope that the war and the acquisition of the West Coast would end the growing sectional agitation that was threatening to break up the Union proved forlorn. During the course of the conflict, considerable opposition to the war developed both inside and outside Congress. That most of this opposition came from the Whigs did not obscure the fact that the war had intensified sectional disharmony. This was especially evident when a group of radical Democrats led by Congressman David Wilmot introduced the Wilmot Proviso, which would have barred slavery from the territories acquired as a consequence of the war. Twice this measure passed the House of Representatives to be defeated in the Senate. But the controversy would spread during the next decade and eventually lead to the Civil War. On this issue, Polk sought a compromise that would eliminate sectional friction. Although he was a slaveholder, he attempted to revive the Missouri Compromise of 1820, whereby slaves were to be prohibited above the 36°30′ parallel in the new territories. By 1848 this compromise was unacceptable to both the North and the South.
True to his commitments 4 years earlier, Polk stepped aside, supporting Lewis Cass for the presidential nomination. Zachary Taylor, the Whig candidate, defeated Cass in November. In a sense, this Democratic defeat resulted directly from Polk's administration. Van Buren broke with his party and, running as the Free Soil candidate, drew votes from Cass. The Free Soil party attracted radical Democrats and some Whigs who supported the Wilmot Proviso.
Polk had taken few vacations while in office, and when he left the presidency, his health was broken. He died in Nashville, Tenn., on June 15, 1849, just 3 months after leaving office.
Historians have generally considered Polk as one of America's "Ten Greatest Presidents." During his term he strengthened the office, achieved his legislative goals, and added a great new empire. But these goals were achieved at a great cost: the destruction of the party and the increased polarization of the sections.
Further Reading on James Knox Polk
Polk's writings are in Milo Milton Quaife, ed., The Diary of James K. Polk during His Presidency, 1845-1849 (4 vols., 1910). The definitive biography is the first two volumes of a projected three-volume study of Polk by Charles Grier Sellers: James K. Polk, Jacksonian, 1795-1843 (1957) and James K. Polk, Continentalist, 1843-1846 (1966). A useful old biography with an emphasis on Polk's public life is Eugene Irving McCormac, James K. Polk: A Political Biography (1922; repr. 1965), which concentrates particularly on Polk's role in Tennessee politics.
Polk's presidential election is covered in Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., ed., History of American Presidential Elections (4 vols., 1971). An interesting account by a political scientist of the development of the presidency during Polk's term is Charles A. McCoy, Polk and the Presidency (1960). The standard account on the war with Mexico is Justin Smith, The War with Mexico (2 vols., 1919). Glenn W. Price, Origins of the War with Mexico: The Polk-Stockton Intrigue (1967), implicates Polk in Commodore Robert Stockton's attempt to launch an attack on Mexico.