November 2, 1795 - June 15, 1849
James Knox Polk was born in November 1795 near Charlotte, North Carolina. The son of a prosperous planter, Polk moved with his family to Columbia, Tennessee, when he was eight years old. After graduating from the University of North Carolina, Polk returned to Columbia, where he established a law practice. In 1825 he was elected to the first of seven consecutive terms in the U. S. Congress.
From the outset of his political career, Polk was a loyal supporter of fellow Tennessean Andrew Jackson. As a member of the Ways and Means Committee, he played a key role in President Jackson's war on the Second Bank of the United States. As chairman of the committee following the election of 1832, Polk emerged as a figure of national prominence, steadfastly defending Jackson against charges of "executive usurpation."
Polk's unquestioning devotion to his party was rivaled only by his intense ambition. In 1835 he was elected Speaker of the House, a position he would hold for four years. He took the unusual step of resigning his seat in 1839 to run for the governorship of Tennessee, in a calculated effort to build a strong, statewide following in his home state. Hoping to emerge as a contender for his party's vice-presidential nomination, Polk won the election, but his long term goals were dealt a setback when he was defeated in his bid for reelection. A second attempt to regain the office also failed in 1843. As a result, Polk's prospects for winning the second spot on his party's ticket seemed remote, but his political fortunes changed dramatically when Martin Van Buren, the likely nominee, angered the pro-expansion wing of the party by refusing to endorse a policy of Texas annexation. At the 1844 convention, Van Buren's supporters were unable to muster the two-thirds majority needed for nomination, and the Democrats after eight ballots turned to the former Tennessee governor as a compromise "dark horse" candidate.
Defeating Whig challenger Henry Clay in 1844, Polk was at forty-nine the youngest chief executive up to that time. In domestic policy, Polk remained faithful to the laissez-faire economic policies of his mentor, Andrew Jackson. Committed to tariff reduction and a hard-money doctrine, Polk pushed Congress to pass in 1846 the Walker Tariff and the Independent Treasury Act. Polk also stood firm against internal improvements, much to the dismay of many northern Democrats, who favored a more active role by the federal government in the nation's economic affairs.
In the arena of foreign policy Polk provided similarly determined leadership. When Congress passed in early March a joint resolution offering to annex the Republic of Texas, it presented the new president with the first crisis of his administration. The Mexican government broke off diplomatic relations and denounced the initiative as grounds for war. On June 15, 1845 Polk ordered fifteen hundred troops under the command of General Zachary Taylor to the south Texas frontier, although the Republic of Texas had not yet formally approved the annexation offer. Ignoring the Mexican claim that the Nueces River was the southern boundary of Texas, by the end of July Washington ordered Taylor to concentrate his forces on the Rio Grande.
While tensions between the United States and Mexico escalated, the new administration also faced a growing crisis with Great Britain. The United States had occupied the Oregon Territory with Great Britain by joint agreement since 1818. Polk initially sought to open negotiations with Great Britain by offering to divide the territory at the 49th parallel, but when the British minister rejected the offer, Polk ordered Secretary of State James Buchanan to withdraw the proposal, thus bringing negotiations to a standstill. In his first annual message in December 1845, Polk called for an end to the joint occupation of Oregon and asked Congress to terminate the agreement. Anxious to avoid antagonizing the world's reigning naval power, Congress ultimately passed a mildly worded resolution that called for an "amicable settlement" of the dispute. As relations with Mexico continued to deteriorate in the early spring of 1846, Polk also became amenable to a compromise solution with Great Britain. When the British made an offer agreeing to accept the 49th parallel compromise line, the president referred the proposal to the Senate, which ratified the treaty by a vote of 41 to 14.
Polk's policy toward Mexico, meanwhile, remained aggressively confrontational. Convinced that Mexican leaders would submit to pressure from Washington, the president dispatched to Mexico a new U.S. minister, John Slidell, with instructions to settle the Texas boundary dispute and reach an agreement regarding more than $3 million in unpaid U.S. claims. Having severed diplomatic relations, the Mexican government refused to receive Slidell as U.S. minister, and in May the U.S. diplomat returned to Washington, D.C. Polk maintained that the United States now had grounds for war. Soon afterward the president learned that U.S. troops had been attacked along the Rio Grande, and on May 11 he called on Congress for a declaration of war against Mexico.
James K. Polk was the first president to exercise fully the powers of commander-in-chief. Although he had no professional military experience, the strong-willed chief executive left no doubt as to who was in charge of the war against Mexico. Bypassing the War Department, Polk himself developed the broad outlines of an initial strategy that involved striking Mexico at three vital points: Santa Fe, New Mexico; Mexico's northern provinces below the Rio Grande; and California. Polk supervised every aspect of the war effort, choosing and replacing officers and even taking a direct role in logistical matters. All decisions made at the War Department were subjected to the closest scrutiny. Mindful of government inefficiency, the president insisted on being kept constantly informed by Secretary of War William L. Marcy of military expenditures. Much to his astonishment, Polk discovered that the Quartermaster's Department had ordered thousands of wagons for the campaigns in Mexico, despite the fact that pack mules were better suited to Mexico's rugged terrain. Polk was also annoyed to find that the army was purchasing horses and mules in the United States and transporting them to the theater of operations, when such animals were readily available at a fraction of the cost in Mexico.
From the earliest days of the war, partisan rancor created an atmosphere of distrust between the president and the nation's military authorities. While Polk's powers of appointment allowed him to shape the volunteer regimental command structure to suit his purposes, he did not enjoy similar latitude in the professional army, which was top-heavy with Whig partisans in 1846. General Winfield Scott, the highest ranking officer in the U. S. Army and a prominent Whig, quickly fell into disfavor with the president, who then named Zachary Taylor to serve as field commander of U.S. forces. Taylor proved equally unsatisfactory from the president's point of view, a view which did not improve as the general became receptive to Whig overtures to accept their presidential nomination. Deciding to open a second front in the fall of 1846, the president turned reluctantly again to Scott to command an invasion of southern Mexico. The president remained suspicious of Scott's partisan loyalties, however, and despite a string of impressive victories culminating in the capture of Mexico City, he was recalled by the administration.
Polk grew similarly frustrated with his peace commissioner, Nicholas P. Trist, who was sent to negotiate with Mexican leaders after the fall of Vera Cruz. A lifelong Democrat, Trist nonetheless established a close working relationship with Scott, which the president interpreted as a sign of his diplomat's untrustworthiness. When peace talks with the Mexican government stalled, Polk recalled Trist, but the diplomat decided to remain in Mexico City and conclude his negotiations in defiance of Polk's order. Although angered by this act of insubordination, Polk signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, by which Mexico ceded California and New Mexico to the United States for $15 million.
While the fault for these squabbles was by no means Polk's alone, the president's desire for control of every situation led inevitably to friction with his subordinates. Polk's hands-on style of management worked well enough in Washington, D.C., where a small bureaucracy discharged its duties under the watchful eye of the chief executive, but it was impossible for Polk to supervise the operations of U.S. troops on foreign soil with similar exactitude. Far removed from the seat of government, the nation's military leaders and diplomatic representatives enjoyed a freedom of action that Polk found enormously frustrating. In an atmosphere already poisoned by partisan suspicions, even the most well-intentioned deviation from instructions appeared to the president to be an act of partisanship or betrayal.
While the U.S. - Mexico War established the United States as a hemispheric power, it also contributed to sectional tensions rooted in Northern fears over the expansion of slavery. Polk remained oblivious to these concerns and, as his term neared its close, continued to press for new territorial acquisitions. The administration briefly considered extending protectorate status over the Yucatán and offered to purchase Cuba from Spain, but these initiatives failed to yield results. In the waning months of his administration, the president became preoccupied with the need to establish federal authority over territories that the nation had recently acquired. Congressional efforts to extend federal jurisdiction over the territories acquired from Mexico became hopelessly mired in the growing sectional controversy and were not resolved until the Compromise of 1850.
Polk left Washington shortly after stepping down from office in early March 1845, and embarked on a tour of the Southern states. The grueling itinerary of speeches and banquets took a severe toll on the former president's already fragile health, which worsened during a stop in New Orleans, where a cholera epidemic was raging. Arriving in Nashville weak and exhausted, he died on June 15, 1849.
As president, Polk inherited a party apparatus rent by internal discord, and the controversial circumstances surrounding his nomination prompted some Democrats to question his legitimacy as the party's standard-bearer. Nonetheless, he had managed to rise above these limitations. Calling for a frugal government and the bold pursuit of U.S. territorial ambitions in his inaugural address, the president could claim significant accomplishments in both areas by the end of his term. With the annexation of Texas, the settlement of the Oregon boundary, and the Mexican Cession, the national domain had grown by 1.2 million square miles, an increase of 64 percent. At the same time, Polk's expansionist agenda sparked a furious sectional debate, aggravating the tensions that would lead to the Civil War. In addition, his belligerent policies toward Mexico and his decision to wage war on the dubious grounds of national defense still rank among the more controversial chapters in the annals of U.S. international relations.