Biography and Presidency of James K. Polk, 11th President of the United States
James K. Polk, America’s 11th president, was a Tennessee based politician who made sure that his term in the White House was one that reinforced the Manifest Destiny. Serving for just one term (1846 – 1849), Polk committed himself to ensuring that America’s westward expansion dream materialized. Only a few presidents in America’s history can boast of having work ethic as high as that of James Polk. He set his mind towards achieving every single objective he set out before taking the presidential office. Such was his work ethic in Washington D.C. that his health deteriorated shortly after leaving office in March, 1849, passing away about three months later.
Below, we present a succinct biography and major accomplishments of James K. Polk.
What was James K. Polk’s Childhood Like?
On November 2, 1795, James Knox Polk was born in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. His parents were Samuel and Jane Knox Polk.
Around age 11, James and his family moved from Mecklenburg to Tennessee. James’ father, Samuel Polk, did pretty well for himself and his family by establishing a striving farm in Maury County, Tennessee.
Growing up, James was constantly bedeviled by one form of illness or the other. As a result of this, his schooling days were a bit interrupted. Frail and sickly, he spent a large part of his childhood home schooled.
Regardless of his fragile health, James successfully secured a place at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The future president of the United States favored subjects such as classics, Latin and mathematics. After graduating with honors In 1818, James Polk proceeded to train as a lawyer in Nashville. It took him just under two years to get admitted to the bar.
It was in Nashville that Polk developed a liking for politics. This was borne as a result of his interaction with upcoming political minds and figures in Nashville. Often times, he mingled with like-minded Andrew Jackson supporters.
Gradually, Polk sharpened his skills in public speech and oratory. For someone that young, he often left his audience captivated. Due to his immaculate prowess in oratory, he earned the moniker “the Napoleon of the stump”.
Who was James K. Polk’s Wife?
In January, 1824, James K. Polk got married to Sarah Childress at Murfreesboro, Tenneesee. James and Sarah were 28 and 20 respectively.
Born in 1803 in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Sarah was a well-educated woman from a prosperous slaveholding family. She first met James while undergoing an educational course from Samuel P. Black in Tennessee. She was 12 and James was 19 at the time.
Historians state that Sarah vital in advancing Polk’s political ambitions. She leveraged her social contacts and her family’s name to promote the political career of James K. Polk. Many politicians compared her level of intelligence and social skills to that of Abigail Adams, wife of the 2nd president of the U.S. John Adams.
Although, James and Sarah never had a child, the impact Sarah had, in the course of their 25 years of marriage, on James’ rise to the top was immense. She typically had an input in some of James K. Polk’s speeches. During Polk’s presidency, Sarah was commonly referred to as “the Presidentress”. This was due to the enormous admiration she received from influential figures such as Andrew Jackson, John C. Calhoun (South Carolina Senator), Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story and a few others.
Due to her strong Presbyterian ideals, Sarah forbade things such as drinking, gambling and dancing at her events. She even banned the playing of music on Sundays. As a result of this, she was often called “Sahara Sarah”.
In her widowed years, Sarah adopted her great-niece, Sarah Polk Jetton. The two lived together at Polk Place until Sarah died in 1891.
James K. Polk’s Political Career
His political career began when he was elected to serve in the Tennessee state legislature in 1823. Due to his wife’s connection in high places, Polk soon got to develop a strong relationship with President Andrew Jackson. Considered the last Jacksonian president, Polk’s went from being a legislature in Tennessee to winning a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1825. He represented Tennessee’s 6th congressional district.
For the next 14 years, Polk conducted his affairs in the House in favor of Jacksonian ideas. From 1835 to 1839, Polk served as the Speaker of the House. Then in 1839, Polk contested and won the governorship in Tennessee. He served as the 9th governor of the state from 1839 to 1841.
Road to the White House
After suffering defeats at the governorship position in 1841 and 1843, Polk cast his attention to securing a vice presidential nomination at the Democratic convention in 1844. The Democratic Party was spoilt for choice with candidates such as Martin Van Buren, James Buchanan and Lewis Cass. Due to the intense competition among those three candidates, James Polk was selected by his party as sort of a compromise candidate.
Polk, along with his Democratic Party, was pitted against the Whigs, who were in turn led by the experienced Henry Clay. Relatively speaking, Polk was not the most famous politician in the Democratic Party; however, what he lacked in personality, he made up for clear and articulate ideas. Going into the 1844 presidential election, Polk was dubbed the “dark horse” in the race. His opponents from the Whig Party used to taunt him by posing the question: “Who is James K. Polk?”
Unfazed by such remarks, Polk remained true and composed, riding on the themes such as annexation of Texas, Southwest expansion, the occupation of Oregon, and a whole bunch of Jacksonian principles. Again, his wife Sarah Polk was a big part of his campaign.
Come election day, Polk showed Clay who exactly he was and what he was capable of doing. The North Carolina-born politician swept his way to victory and became the 11th president of the United States. With the help of his vice presidential candidate, George Mifflin Dallas, Polk was able to pull 65 more electoral votes than Henry Clay.
James K. Polk’s Presidency and Achievements
Running on campaign promises such as: the annexation of Texas; the occupation of the Oregon territory based on latitude 54°40′; and Southwest expansion, hit the ground running.
Once Polk was sworn into office in 1845, he set out to do exactly what he had promised the American people. Nothing more, nothing less! In terms of keeping his promise, Polk is regarded by many as one of the most effective U.S. presidents in history.
Sticking to promise to spend just one term in office, Polk was a man of action during his stay in the White House. He exhibited high amounts of energy and integrity to seeing his vision realized for the country. His work ethic was off the chart, often times proving detrimental to his health.
As president, Polk successfully waged war against Mexico during the Mexican-American War that lasted from 1846 to 1848. He was aided by the very astute military mind of Gen. Zachary Taylor (later 12th president of the U.S.). At the end of the war, the U.S. claimed large territories all the way from the Southwest to Pacific coast lines, i.e. California.
By the time his tenure was over, Polk’s administration could boast of having secured a landmark deal with Great Britain concerning the Oregon issue, i.e. the Oregon Compromise of 1846. President Polk also passed the Walker Tariff Act of 1846 that in effect reduced import duties. This act was crucial in making trade and commerce flourish in the United States. Furthermore, in 1846, Polk re-established a full-fledged and independent treasury system for the United States. President Polk can also be given credit for authorizing the Smithsonian Institution.
During James K. Polk’s presidency, the U.S. Department of Interior was established. The necessity came out of America’s westward expansion. Polk reasoned that a department ought to be set up in order to manage internal affairs of the country.
Lastly, a very important accomplishment of Polk came in the form of the establishment of the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland.
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How did James K. Polk die?
Serving just one term, Polk called it a day on his presidency and headed into retirement at his Nashville home in Tennessee. Consistently disregarding several cautions from his wife, he literally gave his all during his presidency. By the time he had left office in March 1849, Polk’s health was seriously bad.
Physically and mentally exhausted, Polk died on June 15, 1849 – approximately three months after leaving office. He was 53, and the cause of his death was cholera. James K. Polk was survived by his wife and their adopted child
What was James K. Polk’s greatest contribution to the United States?
James K. Polk greatest legacy is rooted in the vast territories – over 800,000 square miles – that he was able to acquire for the United States in just a single term. This westward expansion came as result of territories gained in Oregon, New Mexico and California.
Polk was instrumental in securing a treaty with Great Britain over the Oregon Territory. After years of impasse over the Oregon issue, Polk was able to annex part of Oregon Territory along the 49th Parallel. As a result of this, he averted clashing with Great Britain. With this came the flourishing of trade and political relationship with London.
Polk would forever be remembered for being a president of integrity, high work ethic, and dedication to his office.