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Civil War Encyclopedia >> People - Other
James Knox Polk
James Polk embodied the concept of Manifest Destiny, although that exact term would not exist until after his election as President of the United States. Supporters used the concept to support taking the Oregon Territory from Great Britain and California and the American southwest from Mexico. In fact, he laid out his goals succinctly when elected:
Born in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina on November 2, 1795, he was the first-born of ten children. His father was a farmer, more prosperous than most, but young James Polk couldn't help much - he was frail and sickly. He survived a gall bladder operation, performed without anesthesia, when he was 17. He was admitted to the bar in Tennessee when he was 20.
In 1822 he served two years in the Tennessee legislature before being swept into national office on the coattails of his mentor Andy Jackson during the Election of 1824 even through Jackson lost. In 1832 Representative Polk was appointed to the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, supporting Jackson's opposition to the Second National Bank. His election to Speaker of the House in 1835 not only proved his popularity, it opened him up to criticism of being a Presidential lackey.
In 1839 state Democrats tapped the Congressman to become governor of Tennessee, a position he took in spite of his desire to remain in Washington, D. C. He watched William Henry Harrison defeat Martin Van Buren in 1840 from the governor's mansion in Nashville.
In 1844 the Democrats seemed to be leaning towards nominating Van Buren again, but couldn't bring themselves to do it mostly because the country blamed him for the depression it had been suffering through since 1837. Other Democrat hopefuls including Lewis Cass and James Buchanan seemed to have a chance for the Presidential nomination and Polk seemed destined for a spot as Vice-President, but when the smoke cleared James Polk was the nominee of the party.
Whig Party candidate Henry Clay did not want to support the annexation of Texas, a theme James Polk took over as his own. Immediately after winning independence from Mexico the Republic of Texas applied for admission to the United States. It was a political no man's land - there was no free state to offset Texas, which would have joined as a slave state. In April, 1844, President John Tyler asked the Senate to approve the annexation of Texas when he found out the Republic was negotiating a treaty with Great Britain. Tyler hope the issue would spark his third-party candidacy - he had been kicked out of the Whig Party for vetoing a bank bill.
Andrew Jackson, at a meeting at the Hermitage, told Democrats including James Polk that van Buren's position of ignoring Texas was political suicide. He recommended making annexation of Texas and Oregon a major political platform. He also told the assembled Democrats that they should deadlock the convention in Baltimore and then enter James Polk's name.
In spite of Andrew Jackson's support, Polk would not have an easy road to the Presidency. Henry Clay was a national figure and seasoned politician, well-liked and a good speaker. However, third-party candidate James Birney would play a role in Polk's election. In the first election where northern abolitionists played an important role, the Liberty Party nominated Birney for president. Although Birney did little actual campaigning (he was in England), he drew substantial numbers in New England and New York.
The election had two notable slogans, "54° 40' or Fight", a reference to the latitude of the extended northern border of the Oregon Territory, and "Polk, Dallas and Texas," a reference to Polk's Vice President, George Dallas. Clay's Whig Party was simply asking "Who is James Polk," reflecting on Polk's dark horse candidacy. When the votes were counted, James Polk easily won the electoral vote, but the popular vote was close.
Once Polk was in the White House, he became thoroughly engaged in the day-to-day business. He would only meet Americans until noon, a departure from previous presidencies. He had so little spare time that he rarely read newspapers. His wife, Sarah Polk, enjoyed a good deal of popularity that seemed to cross party lines while Polk's popularity was mostly with the Democrats.
Polk engaged the British over the Oregon Territory, instructing Secretary of State James Buchanan first to inform Britain of the termination of the agreement (activating the 1-year termination clause), and then negotiating a border in line with the rest of the United States (the 49th parallel) in spite of his campaign slogan, "Fifty-Four Forty or Fight!". Initially, Great Britain was reluctant to give up the land from the Columbia River to the 49th Parallel, mostly because the Hudson Bay Company owned it. British Lord Aberdeen oversaw the negotiations and supported the 49th parallel. He swayed British public opinion over to his side. That was lucky for Polk because a month before the Oregon Treaty was signed war broke out with Mexico.
In November, 1845, James Polk decided to make Mexico an offer for its northern half. He sent Louisiana Senator John Slidell to Mexico with an offer of $40 million in November, 1845. The Mexicans refused to meet with Slidell, citing a problem with his credentials. Polk decided to send troops into the disputed area in Texas between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande. Americans then claimed they were attacked by Mexican nationals (they probably were not). Forces under Zachery Taylor battled along the Texas-Mexican border
Displaced dictator Santa Anna, in exile in Cuba, was taken to the Mexican port of Vera Cruz under orders from James Polk and released. It was a major blunder for the President. Rather than cooperate with the American government, which he had agreed to do before his release, Santa Anna usurped the Mexican government and immediately took command of the troops. It was a mistake Americans could measure in lives.
Santa Anna immediately marched north and engaged Zachary Taylor. After the Battle of Buena Vista in March, 1847,
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James Polk was last changed on - November 15, 2006
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