James K. Polk

James Knox Polk by George Peter Alexander Healy, oil on canvas 1858

James Knox Polk by George Peter Alexander Healy, oil on canvas 1858

The eleventh President of the United States James Knox Polk served from March 4, 1845 to March 4, 1849. Polk was born in North Carolina, but primarily lived in and represented the state of Tennessee. Polk was a Democrat and served as Speaker of the House (1835–1839) and Governor of Tennessee (1839–1841) prior to becoming president. He is noted for his expansionist beliefs and pledge to serve only one term. His is regarded as the first “dark horse” president and the youngest president to die outside those who have been assassinated. He was the last of the Jacksonians to sit in the White House, and the last strong President until the Civil War.

Polk was born on the family farm in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, on November 2, 1795, the first of ten children. His father, Samuel Polk, was a farmer and surveyor. His mother, Jane Polk (whose maiden name was “Knox”) was a descendant of Scottish religious reformer John Knox. In 1806, the Polk family moved to Tennessee, settling near Duck River in what is now called Maury County. The family grew in prosperity and Samuel Polk become one of the leading gentlemen of the area.

Polk suffered from ill-health during his childhood. In 1812, his father took him to Kentucky to see the famous surgeon Dr. Ephraim McDowell. Polk was diagnosed with gallstones, and survived a risky operation to remove them. The surgery proved successful, however, and Polk enjoyed greater health throughout the rest of his life.

Polk received only an informal education during his childhood. He began his formal education at age 18 when he joined a religious school near his home. Later, he attended a school in Murfreesboro, where he met his future wife, Sarah Childress. Following this he attended the University of North Carolina graduating in 1818. He returned to Nashville to study law and was admitted to the bar in 1820. He established his own practice in the Tennessee town of Columbia

Polk’s father and grandfather were strong supporters of Thomas Jefferson, and Polk was brought up as a Jeffersonian Democrat. His political life began with him serving as the Chief Clerk of the Senate of Tennessee (1821–1823). Polk resigned the position in order to run his successful campaign for the state legislature. Polk was known as a popular orator, becoming known as “Napoleon of the Stump.” He became engaged to Sarah Childress, a resident of the state capital of Murfreesboro and they married on January 1, 1824.

Polk became a close friend and political ally of Andrew Jackson, then the leading politician of Tennessee. Polk ran successfully for the U. S. House of Representatives while Jackson lost his bid for the Presidency. His support of Jacksonian political principles was obvious. He opposed the Second Bank of the United States, favored gold and silver over paper money, and preferred agricultural interests over industrial ones. This earned him the nickname “Young Hickory,” a comparison to Jackson’s nickname of “Old Hickory.”

Polk became Speaker in 1835, and is the only former Speaker of the House to ever be elected President. Due to a volatile political situation in Tennessee – where, in 1835, Democrats had lost the Governorship for the first time in their party’s history – Polk was convinced by party members not to seek another term in the House of Representatives. Polk left Congress and 1839 and won the Tennessee gubernatorial election.

As the Democratic convention began on May 27, 1844, James K. Polk hoped for the vice-presidential nomination. The leading contender for the presidential nomination at that time was former President Van Buren, but he did not win the nomination due to his opposition of the annexation of Texas as a new state. Polk was put forth as a “dark horse” candidate and, on the ninth ballot, Democrats unanimously nominated him.

When advised of his nomination via letter, Polk replied: “It has been well observed that the office of President of the United States should neither be sought nor declined. I have never sought it, nor should I feel at liberty to decline it, if conferred upon me by the voluntary suffrages of my fellow citizens.”

Polk was an ardent advocate for westward expansion of the United States territory. His opponent in the Presidential election Henry Clay, a Whig candidate, was less so. It was Polk’s consistent support for westward expansion—the “Manifest Destiny”— the won him the election. He won the South and West, while Clay drew support in the Northeast. Polk won the crucial state of New York, where Clay lost supporters to the third party candidate James G. Birney. Polk won the popular vote by a margin of over 38,000, and took the Electoral College with 170 votes to Clay’s 105. Polk’s fellow Democrat, George M. Dallas, became Vice President.

At age 49, Polk was the youngest man ever to assume the presidency up to that time. Resolved to serve only one term, Polk acted in earnet to fulfill his campaign promises. In just four years, he oversaw the annexation of Texas, settlement of the Oregon boundary dispute with Britain, reestablishment of an independent treasury system, and the acquisition of 1.2 million square miles of territory from Mexico that eventually became California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming. The former Mexican land came as part of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, settling the Mexican-American War. In addition, the United States Naval Academy was established in Annapolis, Maryland during his term.

Polk’s health began to fail while in office. Though he started his term full of enthusiasm and vigor, by the time he left office at age 53, he was exhausted from years of public service. He died less than four months later, the shortest retirement of any former US President. Polk’s wife, Sarah Childress Polk, lived another 42 years, which was the longest retirement for any former First Lady. . James and Sarah Polk are buried in a tomb on the grounds of the Tennessee State Capitol Building, in Nashville.

Polk is remembered for the three U.S. states (Iowa, Texas and Wisconsin) that joined the Union, the opening of the U.S. Naval Academy and Washington Monument and the issuing of the first postage stamps in the United States.

James K. Polk Facts

  • President No.: 11 th
  • When did James K. Polk serve? 1845-49
  • What was James K. Polk’s party? Democrat
  • Where was James K. Polk from? Tennessee
  • Who was James K. Polk’s wife? Sarah Childress Polk
  • When was James K. Polk born? November 2, 1795
  • Where was James K. Polk born? Mecklenburg County, North Carolina
  • When did James K. Polk die? June 15, 1849
  • Where did James K. Polk die? Nashville, Tennessee
  • Which college did James K. Polk attend? University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
  • What was James K. Polk’s Jobs Before President? Lawyer, Governor of Tennessee, Congressman
  • What was James K. Polk’s height? 5 feet, 8 inches
  • What was the population when James K. Polk was president? 23,191,876
  • What transportation did James K. Polk use? Train
  • How did James K. Polk communicate? Letter


James K. Polk State of the Union Addresses

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