James Knox Polk

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Polk, James Knox

(pōk), 1795–1849, 11th President of the United States (1845–49), b. Mecklenburg co., N.C.

Early Career

His family moved (1806) to the Duck River valley in Tennessee and there, after graduating from the Univ. of North Carolina (1818) and studying law under Felix Grundy, he began (1820) to practice law in Columbia. Polk served in the state legislature (1823–25) and in the U.S. House of Representatives (1825–39), where he was speaker for the years 1835–39. He was a leading Jacksonian Democrat. In 1839 he was elected governor of Tennessee, but he was defeated for reelection by the Whig candidate in 1841 and 1843.

Polk had vice presidential ambitions, but Andrew Jackson, convinced that Martin Van BurenVan Buren, Martin,
1782–1862, 8th President of the United States (1837–41), b. Kinderhook, Columbia co., N.Y. Early Career

He was reared on his father's farm, was educated at local schools, and after reading law was admitted (1803) to the bar.
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 had committed political suicide by announcing his opposition to the annexation of Texas, urged Polk to consider the presidency. With the Van Buren and Lewis CassCass, Lewis,
1782–1866, American statesman, b. Exeter, N.H. He established (1802) himself as a lawyer in Zanesville, Ohio, became a member (1806) of the state legislature, and was U.S. marshal for Ohio from 1807 to 1812.
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 factions deadlocked at the Democratic convention at Baltimore in 1844, George BancroftBancroft, George,
1800–1891, American historian and public official, b. Worcester, Mass. He taught briefly at Harvard and then at the Round Hill School in Northampton, Mass., of which he was a founder and proprietor. He then turned definitively to writing. His article (Jan.
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 advanced Polk as a candidate behind whom both sections could unite, and the "dark horse" won the nomination. Polk campaigned on an expansionist platform and narrowly defeated Henry ClayClay, Henry,
1777–1852, American statesman, b. Hanover co., Va. Early Career

His father died when he was four years old, and Clay's formal schooling was limited to three years.
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 by carrying New York state, where the presidential candidacy of James G. Birney of the Liberty partyLiberty party,
in U.S. history, an antislavery political organization founded in 1840. It was formed by those abolitionists, under the leadership of James G. Birney and Gerrit Smith, who repudiated William Lloyd Garrison's nonpolitical stand.
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 cut into Clay's vote.


To the surprise of many, the new President proved to be his own man; he even ignored Jackson's wishes on several matters. Renouncing a second term for himself, he required the members of his cabinet, which included James BuchananBuchanan, James,
1791–1868, 15th President of the United States (1857–61), b. near Mercersburg, Pa., grad. Dickinson College, 1809. Early Career

Buchanan studied law at Lancaster, Pa.
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, Robert J. WalkerWalker, Robert John,
1801–69, American public official, b. Northumberland, Pa. A lawyer, he practiced for a time in Pittsburgh. In 1826 he moved to Natchez, Miss. As a Democratic Senator (1836–45) from Mississippi, Walker was an ardent advocate of U.S.
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, William L. MarcyMarcy, William Learned,
1786–1857, American politician, b. Southbridge, Mass. He settled in Troy, N.Y., where he practiced law and, after serving in the War of 1812, held local offices.
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, and Bancroft, to devote all their energies to their offices, not to campaigning to succeed him.

Polk announced that his administration would achieve "four great measures": reduction of the tariff; reestablishment of the independent treasury; settlement of the Oregon boundary dispute; and the acquisition of California. All were accomplished. The Walker Tariff, one of the lowest in U.S. history, was enacted in 1846, as was the bill restoring the Independent Treasury SystemIndependent Treasury System,
in U.S. history, system for the retaining of government funds in the Treasury and its subtreasuries independently of the national banking and financial systems. In one form or another, it existed from the 1840s to 1921.
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. Despite the aggressive Democratic slogan "Fifty-four forty or fightFifty-four forty or fight,
in U.S. history, phrase commonly used by extremists in the controversy with Great Britain over the Oregon country. The rights of the United States, they maintained, extended to the whole region, i.e., to lat.
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," the dispute with Great Britain over Oregon was peaceably resolved with the adoption of lat. 49°N (the 49th parallel) as Oregon's northern boundary.

Relations with Mexico, on the other hand, reached a breaking point after the annexation of Texas. Polk had hoped to purchase California and to settle other difficulties with Mexico by negotiation. However, after the failure of the mission of John SlidellSlidell, John
, 1793–1871, American political leader and diplomat, b. New York City. He became a prominent lawyer and political figure in New Orleans and served as a Democrat in Congress (1843–45). In 1845, Slidell was appointed special U.S.
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 to Mexico, the President ordered the American advance to the Rio Grande that precipitated the Mexican WarMexican War,
1846–48, armed conflict between the United States and Mexico. Causes

While the immediate cause of the war was the U.S. annexation of Texas (Dec., 1845), other factors had disturbed peaceful relations between the two republics.
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. As a result of the war, the United States acquired not only California but the entire Southwest.

Few presidents have worked harder, and few have equaled Polk's record of attaining specific, stated aims. He labored so strenuously in fact that his health gave way, and he died a few months after leaving office.


See The Diary of James K. Polk (ed. by M. M. Quaife, 4 vol., 1910; abr. in 1 vol. by A. Nevins, 1952); his correspondence, ed. by H. Weaver and P. H. Bergeron (2 vol. 1969–72); biographies by C. G. Sellers, Jr. (2 vol., 1957–66), C. A. McCoy (1960, repr. 1973), and W. R. Borneman (2008); R. W. Merry, A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent (2009).

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Polk, James Knox

(1795–1849) eleventh U.S. president; born in Mecklenburg County, N.C. Son of a prosperous farmer, he moved in childhood to Tennessee, was admitted to the bar there in 1820, and by 1825 had gained election as a Democrat to the U.S. House of Representatives. He became Speaker of the House (1835–39), where he was a powerful advocate of Jacksonian policies and expansionism. After serving as governor of Tennessee (1839–41), he beat Henry Clay for the presidency as a "dark horse" in 1844, mainly on his promise to seize Mexican territory in the southwest. An efficient and determined executive, he did as promised by provoking the Mexican War, which in 1848 secured for the victorious U.S.A. undisputed possession of Texas, and 500,000 square miles including the future states of California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico. Meanwhile he peacefully settled the Oregon boundary dispute with England. Exhausted, attacked from all sides because of his opposition to both extremes on the issue of slavery, and holding to a campaign pledge, he did not run for reelection and died three months after leaving office.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.