K. Polk: Biography
November 2, 1795
Died: June 15, 1849
Learn about the 11th President, the youngest
up to the time, who managed to expand the borders of the United
States to the Pacific Ocean, added three states to the Union, started
the Naval Academy, the Washington Monument, issued the first postage
stamp, and remains the youngest President to die outside those who
have been assassinated.
Career Before the Presidency
The career of the eleventh U.S. President reflected and fulfilled
the young nation's commitment to westward expansion. The son of
a North Carolina farmer and surveyor, James Knox Polk was ten years
old when his family moved across the Appalachian Mountains. Growing
up on the Tennessee frontier, he inherited his neighbors' work ethic,
resourcefulness, and democratic ideals.
Although young James was accustomed to the rigors of frontier life,
he lacked physical stamina. Shortly before his seventeenth birthday,
he needed surgery for stones in his urinary bladder. The successful
operation, performed by noted Kentucky surgeon Ephraim McDowell,
enabled James to pursue an education with renewed enthusiasm.
After only two and a half years of formal schooling in Tennessee,
James K. Polk was admitted to the University of North Carolina as
a sophomore. His college studies and his membership in a debating
society helped nurture his growing interest in law and government.
He graduated with top honors in mathematics and the classics, and
returned to Tennessee determined to become a lawyer. To receive
legal training, he worked in the office of renowned Nashville trial
attorney Felix Grundy and served as clerk of the Tennessee Senate.
Diligent and ambitious, James soon established a law practice in
Encouraged by his early professional success, he turned his attention
to politics. At age twenty-seven, he defeated an incumbent for a
seat in the Tennessee Legislature. While serving as a State Representative,
he courted and eventually married Sarah Childress, the daughter
of a prominent Murfreesboro merchant and planter. An educated lady
whose intellect and social grace impressed contemporaries, Sarah
became James K. Polk's personal and political confidante. Her active
involvement in her husband's campaigns helped ensure his victories.
Fervently supporting the policies of fellow Tennessee Democrat
Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk was elected to the U.S. Congress at
age twenty-nine. His Congressional career lasted fourteen years
and included two terms as Speaker of the House. While working in
Washington, he remained keenly interested in state politics. Concerned
that the Whig Party was becoming increasingly popular in Tennessee,
he returned home and successfully ran for the governorship. After
one two-year term, he twice failed to be re-elected. Although rivals
reasonably assumed that his political influence had peaked, James
K. Polk stayed active in Democratic politics and shrewdly sought
opportunities to revive his career.
1844 Election and the Presidency
Despite James K. Polk's political frustrations
in Tennessee in the 1840's, nationally prominent Democrats had
not forgotten his partisan dedication. Delegates to the 1844 Democratic
Convention viewed him as a possible Vice President. When the party's
leading Presidential contenders Martin Van Buren and Lewis Cass
failed to attract sufficient support to win the nomination, the
deadlocked convention needed a compromise candidate. The Democrats'
"dark horse" nominee was James K. Polk.
Challenging the well-known Whig candidate Henry Clay
in the 1844 Presidential election, Polk promised to actively encourage
America's westward expansion. He favored Texas statehood and the
acquisition of the Oregon Territory. Although critics expressed
concern that aggressive expansionism might lead to a war with Great
Britain or Mexico and might destroy the tenuous balance between
free states and slave states, a majority of Americans accepted Polk's
vision of a continental nation.
With political forcefulness and savvy, President Polk tirelessly pursued
his ambitious goals. Tense negotiations with Great Britain concluded
with American annexation of the Oregon Territory south of the 49th
Parallel. Following a controversial two-year war, Mexico ceded New
Mexico and California to the United States. During Polk's term of
office, the United States acquired over 800,000 square miles of western
territory and extended its boundary to the Pacific Ocean. The Polk
Administration also achieved economic objectives by lowering tariffs
and establishing an independent Federal Treasury.
True to his campaign pledge to serve only one term as President,
James K. Polk left office and returned to Tennessee in March, 1849.
The nation's expansionist aims had been realized. When Polk died
of cholera three months later, thousands of Americans were rushing
west in search of California gold.
Click here to read about First Lady
Sarah Childress Polk.
To watch the video The Election of 1844 by Lauren Baud,
click the following link:
Real Player format
To watch the video James K. Polk: The Final Days by Tom
Price, click one of the following links:
Player format or Windows
Media Player format
To watch the video Polk's Cabinet by Emily Senefeld, click
the following link:
Windows Media Player
To watch the video Sarah Polk's White House by Emily Senefeld,
click the following link:
Media Player format
To learn more about James K. Polk, take our