James K. Polk Facts & Worksheets

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    • Early Years and Personal Life
    • Rise in Politics
    • 1844 US Presidential Election
    • Presidency: Domestic and Foreign Policies
    • James Polk and Slavery
    • Retirement and Death

    Key Facts And Information

    Let’s find out more about James K. Polk!

    James Knox Polk was the 11th President of the United States, serving from 1845 to 1849. He was known for his strong belief in Manifest Destiny and his dedication to expanding the territory of the United States.

    During his presidency, James successfully negotiated the Oregon Treaty with Britain, which secured the Pacific Northwest for the United States. He also led the nation into the Mexican-American War, resulting in significant territorial gains for the US, including the annexation of Texas and the acquisition of California and New Mexico. His single term in office was defined by his plans, which included his commitment to fulfilling the nation's territorial ambitions and his position on slavery.

    James K. Polk
    James K. Polk

    Early Years and Personal Life

    • James K. Polk was born on 2 November 1795, in a log cabin in Pineville, North Carolina, to Samuel Polk and Jane Polk. His father was a farmer and surveyor, and his mother worked as a homemaker. He was the eldest of ten children.
    • As a young child, James experienced weak health, which was detrimental in a frontier environment. Urinary stones were removed from him during surgery, which would have rendered him sterile or impotent. But he bounced back faster and grew stronger.
    • In 1813, he started in a Presbyterian academy and then enrolled in the Zion Church Academy. After that, he enrolled at Tennessee's Bradley Academy in Murfreesboro, where he showed potential as a student.
    • James was accepted as a sophomore in the second semester at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in January 1816. After joining the Dialectic Society, Polk participated in discussions and rose to the position of president. In May 1818, he received his honours diploma.
    • Following graduation, Polk went back to Nashville, Tennessee, to pursue legal studies under trial attorney Felix Grundy. In 1819, he was chosen as the Tennessee State Senate clerk, a position he held until 1822.
    • After being licenced to the Tennessee bar in June 1820, his first case was to defend his father in court when the latter was accused of public fighting. He was able to secure his release for a fine of one dollar. In 1819, he established an office in Maury County and became a prominent lawyer.
    • In terms of his personal life, Polk began courting Sarah Childress in early 1822. The two became engaged the following year and were wed in Murfreesboro on 1 January 1824. 
    • Sarah came from one of the most well-known families in the state and was significantly more educated than the majority of women of her era, particularly in frontier Tennessee.
    • She would later actively participate in Polk's campaigns and help him with his speeches and policy ideas throughout his political career. The couple did not have any children of their own, but they were known for their strong partnership and mutual support for each other.

    Rise in Politics

    • After a successful stint as a prominent lawyer in Maury County, Polk made his entry into politics by winning a seat in the Tennessee House of Representatives in August 1823. 
    • In 1825, he rose to the position of Speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives. In the same year, he transitioned to the national stage by winning a seat in the United States House of Representatives. Polk arrived in Washington, D.C., for Congress's regular session in December 1825. 
    • He gave his first significant address on 13 March 1826, arguing in favour of the popular vote for president and the elimination of the Electoral College.
    • He developed as an outspoken opponent of John Quincy Adams's administration while maintaining a close relationship with Andrew Jackson, who was re-elected in 1827. In the "Bank War" sparked by Jackson's resistance to the Second Bank of the United States' reauthorisation, Polk was by far his most notable House friend.
    • Polk assumed the influential role of Ways and Means chairman in the House in December 1833. 
    • He took that stance, supporting Jackson's decision to remove federal financing from the Second Bank and passing laws authorising the government to sell its shares in the bank.
    • With his position at the core of Jacksonian Democracy on the House floor and his assimilation into Washington's social circles, Polk was nearing the pinnacle of his congressional career by 1836. 
    • Following his seven terms in the House, Polk said he would not run for reelection and instead entered the 1839 race to become the governor of Tennessee.
    • After the Democrats lost the Tennessee governorship for the first time ever in 1835, Polk went back home to support the party. While Whig incumbent Newton Cannon concentrated on state-specific concerns, Polk ran on national issues.
    • On election day, the Democrats regained control of the state legislature and three congressional seats as Polk beat Cannon 54,102 to 51,396. His biggest achievement as governor was using political manoeuvring to force the two Whig US senators from Tennessee to be replaced with Democrats.
    • In 1841, the Whigs supported William Henry Harrison's campaign by fielding James C. Jones, a rookie legislator from frontier Wilson County, against Polk. 
    • On election day, Polk lost by 3,000 votes. His political future was uncertain in 1843, following his second statewide loss in three years.

    Polk's nickname “Young Hickory” reflected his strong admiration and ideological alignment with Andrew Jackson, who was known as “Old Hickory.”

    1844 campaign banner for the Polk/Dallas
    1844 campaign banner for the Polk/Dallas

    1844 US Presidential Election

    • Polk was adamant about becoming the next vice president of the United States, even in the face of resistance from Westerners and Southerners. 
    • In an attempt to win over Martin Van Buren, he ran a campaign to be his running partner.
    • Given that the Republic of Texas had rebelled against Mexico in 1836, territorial expansion was the main political concern at the time. Henry Clay's letter opposing Texas annexation displeased Andrew Jackson.
    • Conversely, Polk had penned a letter in favour of annexation. Jackson informed him at their meeting at the Hermitage that an expansionist from the South or Southwest could only win the election. Accepting the idea, Polk gave instructions to push towards his presidential nomination.
    • Polk stuck around Columbia and used his substantial correspondence with Democratic Party officials to voice his opinions. The question of whether the tariff should be imposed primarily for revenue purposes or with the intention of protecting American business was the first issue in his campaign.
    • In a letter that was made public, he clarified the tariff dispute by arguing that while tariffs may and should provide "fair and just protection" to American interests, particularly those of manufacturers, they should only be used to fund government operations.
    • Then President John Tyler's third-party candidature, which could divide the Democratic vote, was the second cause for concern. 
    • Jackson had the authority to put an end to the matter by informing allies in the Cabinet in two letters that the president's backers would be cordially welcomed back into the Democratic Party. Resulting from this, Tyler withdrew from the competition.
    • A third issue was party strife, which Polk and John C. Calhoun resolved when Francis Pickens, a former congressman from South Carolina, travelled to Tennessee, spent two days in Columbia, and spoke with Jackson at the Hermitage as his condition worsened.
    • Regarding Texas, Whig presidential nominee Henry Clay and his attempt to elucidate his stance infuriated both parties and further helped Polk in his campaign. As the election approached, it became evident that the majority of Americans were in favour of annexing Texas. 
    • Because Clay opposed annexation, numerous Southern Whig leaders backed Polk's candidature.
    • Democratic voter turnout increased significantly as a result of Polk's endorsement of manifest destiny, especially in the Northwest and Mid-Atlantic regions. 
    • The Democrats, who also won Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana, nearly captured Ohio, the state where the concept of manifest destiny was most popular. Clay lost in the Deep South in every state. In Michigan and New York, James Birney of the Liberty Party garnered a higher number of votes than Polk. 

    The 1844 Presidential Election signalled a shift in political power, demonstrating the strength of the Democratic Party during the mid-19th century.


    • Since the American Revolution, the population of the nation Polk governed has quadrupled every 20 years, bringing it to demographic parity with Great Britain. 
    • The persistence of technological developments under his presidency, such as the growth of railroads and the rising usage of the telegraph, fueled an ardour for expansionism.
    • Polk outlined four distinct objectives for his administration:
    1. Restore the Independent Treasury System
    2. Lower the tariffs
    3. Take possession of all or part of Oregon Country
    4. Take over the harbours of California from Mexico
    • In order to ensure representation from New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and his home state of Tennessee, Polk assembled a geographically balanced cabinet.
    • Despite his desire to exclude potential presidential candidates from his Cabinet, he appointed George Bancroft as Navy Secretary, Cave Johnson of Tennessee as Postmaster General, and James Buchanan of Pennsylvania as Secretary of State.
    • Polk selected John Y. Mason of Virginia, Tyler's former Navy Secretary, as Attorney General, even though Mason was not initially on the list. 
    • Additionally, he appointed William Marcy of New York as Secretary of War and Senator Walker of Mississippi as Secretary of the Treasury. Few replacements were needed because the members got along well with one another.
    • On 4 March 1845, Polk assumed office, making history as the youngest president to that extent. 
    • He made it plain in his inauguration speech that he opposed a national bank and tariff and supported the annexation of Texas.

    Domestic Policies

    Polk's domestic policies were centred around several key initiatives aimed at strengthening the economy. Some of the notable domestic policies implemented during his presidency include:

    • Independent Treasury System: One of Polk's primary goals was to restore the Independent Treasury System, which aimed to maintain the government's financial independence by establishing its own system for storing and managing federal funds.
    • Tariff Reform: Polk sought to lower tariffs, aligning with his belief that tariffs should primarily serve the purpose of generating revenue for the government rather than protecting domestic industries. His administration worked towards revising existing tariff policies to achieve this objective.

    Manifest Destiny was the 19th-century belief that the expansion of the United States across the American continent was justified and preordained. 

    Foreign Policies

    Polk's foreign policies were largely centred around territorial expansion and the assertion of American influence in the Western hemisphere. The following key initiatives best describe his administration's approach to foreign affairs:

    • Manifest Destiny and Territorial Expansion: Polk was a strong advocate for the concept of Manifest Destiny, and his presidency saw significant efforts to expand the nation's territory.
    • Annexation of Texas: Polk's pursuit of the annexation of Texas, which culminated in its admission as the 28th state of the Union, expanded the territorial reach of the US and heightened tensions with Mexico, eventually leading to the Mexican-American War.
    • Oregon Territory Conflict: Polk’s administration made an effort to settle the territorial conflict over the Oregon Country, which both the United States and Great Britain claimed. Through skilful negotiations and a show of military strength, he successfully secured a favourable settlement with Britain, establishing the 49th parallel as the boundary between the two nations.
    • Expansion in the Pacific: In addition to territorial expansion in the continental United States, Polk's administration expressed a keen interest in expanding American influence in the Pacific. The administration's efforts to wrest control of the Californian harbours from Mexico in order to increase American maritime power and trade opportunities served as evidence of this.
    Allegory of Manifest Destiny
    Allegory of Manifest Destiny
    • Relations with Mexico: The annexation of Texas and the dispute over the boundary of Texas and Mexico ultimately led to strained relations and, eventually, armed conflict with Mexico. Polk's administration engaged in diplomacy to address these issues but ultimately resorted to military action, leading to the Mexican-American War and the subsequent Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

    James Polk and Slavery

    • For the majority of his adult life, Polk had enslaved people. In his will, his father had left him more than 8,000 acres of land and had divided approximately 53 enslaved individuals among his wife and children.
    • In 1831, Polk became an absentee cotton farmer, utilising slave labour to clear plantation property in the vicinity of Somerville, Tennessee. Subsequently, he purchased 920 acres close to Coffeeville, Mississippi, and moved enslaved people there while carefully hiding their relocation south.
    • Polk owned all of the Mississippi plantations in 1839, and he ran them primarily from a distance for the rest of his life. In 1831, he spent $1,870 on five more enslaved people, most of whom he bought in Kentucky. In 1846, he bought seven more, ages 12 to 17, from an agent in the hopes that the larger labour force would boost his retirement income.
    • The nonbinding assumption in Polk's will, dated 28 February 1849, was that his enslaved people would be released upon the deaths of both him and his wife. 
    • The Mississippi plantation was supposed to provide for Sarah Polk as a widow, but the Thirteenth Amendment, which outlawed slavery in the US, emancipated the enslaved people in 1865.
    • Like Jackson, Polk considered economic policy and territorial expansion to be more important than the politics of slavery. In the 1840s, the debate over slavery grew more hostile, and Polk's successful expansionist policies contributed to this. Several abolitionists fiercely attacked him as a tool of "slave power" during his presidency, arguing that his support for the Texas Annexation and the ensuing war with Mexico was motivated by his desire to promote slavery.
    • Polk advocated for the spread of slavery as a result of his own family's experience colonising Tennessee and bringing enslaved people with them. He supported "Southern rights," which included the freedom of slave states to exist without interference from the federal government as well as the freedom of individual Southerners to take their enslaved people with them when they relocated.

    Retirement and Death

    • Polk decided not to run for reelection. His health suffered during his term in the White House, and he was worn out when he left office. After his presidency, he retired to his home in Nashville, Tennessee, where he had initially set out to enjoy his retirement. However, his retirement was short-lived, and his declining health became a cause for concern.
    • On 15 June 1849, Polk passed away at the age of 53. His bones were twice relocated: in 1850, they were placed in a tomb on the grounds of Polk Place, and then in Nashville City Cemetery. The bodies of him and his wife were moved to their present location on the Tennessee State Capitol grounds in Nashville in 1893.
    • In the years following his death, Polk's stance on territorial expansion and slavery has continued to be the subject of historical analysis and debate. His time in office, although short, made a lasting impact on the country.

    Frequently Asked Questions

    • Who was James K. Polk?

      James K. Polk was the 11th President of the United States, serving from 1845 to 1849. He was a Democrat from Tennessee.

    • What were James K. Polk's major accomplishments as President?

      Polk's major accomplishments include the annexation of Texas, the settlement of the Oregon boundary dispute, and the acquisition of California and other territories in the Mexican-American War through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

    • What were Polk's views on Manifest Destiny?

      Polk strongly advocated Manifest Destiny, believing that the United States was destined to expand across the North American continent. His administration aggressively pursued territorial expansion, leading to the acquisition of vast territories in the West.