James K. Polk

David M. Pletcher

James K. Polk

BEYOND a doubt the one-term president who left behind him the greatest record of accomplishment was James Knox Polk. In the area of domestic legislation his administration lowered the prevailing high tariff and established a moderate policy that lasted fifteen years, until the Civil War. It reestablished the independent treasury (sometimes called subtreasury), a system of handling revenues that made the government custodian over its own funds instead of scattering them among private banks, and thereby restored some order to a fiscal system still disorganized from Andrew Jackson's Bank War of the 1830s. It also founded the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis.

But Polk's record of accomplishment depends mostly on his achievements in foreign affairs. His administration completed the annexation of Texas, begun by John Tyler. Under his personal, day-by-day direction, his administration brought the United States into, and out of, a major diplomatic crisis with Britain and a war with Mexico in which the United States did not lose a single major battle. Following his instructions, American diplomats negotiated treaties that added to the national domain the western third of its continental territory—California, Oregon, and the Southwest, a vast area nearly as large as all the nations of Free Europe after World War II. In the process, he restated and partly redefined the Monroe Doctrine. Further, one of Polk's diplomats negotiated a treaty with Colombia (then called New Granada) that was to serve Theodore Roosevelt nearly sixty years later as the legal basis for assisting in the independence of Panama, which led directly to the construction of the Panama Canal. Overall, it would not be too much to say that Polk's administration raised the United States to the level of a second-class power and laid part of the foundation for its later establishment as a great power.

Historians have been slow to recognize Polk's importance. Since he was a narrowly partisan Democrat, it is not surprising that early studies of his administration were mostly party tracts. By the end of the nineteenth century, Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and Daniel Webster loomed so far over him that J. T. Morse, Jr., and Ellis P. Oberholtzer failed to include him in two biographical series about American statesmen. The executive leadership of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson made Polk's tribulations and achievements seem more relevant than at any time since 1848, and the appearance in 1922 of a major biography by Eugene Irving McCormac established Polk's reputation. A few twentieth-century historians dismissed him as "Polk the Mediocre," but none could ignore him, and in mid-century the succession of strong presidents forced a historical reevaluation in which Polk was recognized as the major link in the chain of executive dominance between Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln. In the early 1960s a poll of historians ranked Polk eighth in importance among presidents—just below Theodore Roosevelt and above Harry S. Truman. Reaction against the "imperial presidency" may have eroded some of his popularity.

Polk's long obscurity was due partly to the nature of his background and rise to power and partly to his personality and conduct of the presidency. Born in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, on 2 November 1795, he grew up in central Tennessee. As a boy he was sickly (although he had strength enough to survive, at seventeen, a gallstone operation without modern anesthesia or antisepsis), and as a man he was often ill with fever or diarrhea. With characteristic single-mindedness, he prepared himself for the law, first at the University of North Carolina and then in the law office of the veteran Tennessee politician Felix Grundy. Deciding on a career of public office, Polk made his way upward through the rough, semifrontier politics of Tennessee. In 1825 he progressed from the state legislature to the United States House of Representatives. By then he had attracted Andrew Jackson's attention and patronage, as well as Old Hickory's many enemies.

For most of the next two decades, Polk perfected his skills in the thick of partisan national politics, being at first a Jeffersonian republican but soon becoming a Jacksonian democrat. He fought with bitter enmity against John Quincy Adams' administration and then against the whole Whig party, in which he could see no redeeming features. (Although Polk later received Henry Clay at the White House with warm cordiality, Adams never forgave or forgot his hostility.) By 1833, Jackson so appreciated Polk's loyalty and ability that he put him in charge of the Bank War in the House and saw to it that he was raised to the chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee. Two years later Polk won the speakership after an unusually bitter fight with fellow Tennessean John Bell. The residual animosity from the Bank War and this fight, together with the long running battle over the "gag rule" and the frustrations of Martin Van Buren's election and early presidency, made Polk's four-year tenure as Speaker perhaps the noisiest and most vituperative so far in American experience. Polk received the attacks with calm dignity, parried them with an acute command of parliamentary procedure, and remembered them for later reference.

Retiring from the House to become governor of Tennessee (1839), Polk hoped for the nomination for the vice presidency in the Democratic convention of 1840. He failed in this, and after his defeat for reelection as governor the following year, his career in national politics seemed at an end. Undaunted and with Jackson's continued support, he organized a canny group of supporters to make another effort for the vice presidential nomination at the party convention of 1844, at which Van Buren's candidacy for reelection seemed a foregone conclusion. Unfortunately for Van Buren, he chose the wrong side of the Texas question, newly emerged as a burning issue, and after Polk had come out resoundingly for annexation of both Texas and Oregon, his clique was able to obtain his nomination for the presidency by exploiting the convention's two-thirds rule, the resulting deadlock, and Jackson's influence.

The Whigs' jeer "Who is James K. Polk?" has left a wide impression that Polk was the first dark-horse presidential candidate in American history. This is misleading, for Polk's stormy years as Speaker of the House had made him well known within the party. He was, to be sure, a compromise candidate, and in order to preserve unity, he promised that, if elected, he would serve only one term. The campaign especially featured the expansionist and tariff issues; but since Clay, the Whig candidate, waffled on Texas (whose annexation he really wished to postpone) and Polk waffled on the tariff (which he really intended to reform downward), it is impossible to attribute the result to any issue. Early in the summer Clay seemed to be running ahead, but Polk finally won, with the electoral vote 170 to 105. Votes in all sections of the country were divided; Polk even carried Maine and New Hampshire but lost Tennessee and North Carolina. It has been generally assumed that Clay's hedging on Texas allowed the minority, antislavery Liberty party to absorb enough of his strength to throw New York's 35 electoral votes to Polk, but some have argued that a more forthright stand on Texas would have lost Clay four of the states he won (with 35 electoral votes) by narrow margins.


A good study, focusing especially on domestic problems, is Paul H. Bergeron, The Presidency of James K. Polk (Lawrence, Kans., 1987). Charles A. McCoy, Polk and the Presidency (Austin, Tex., 1960), covers much of the same ground.

The first scholarly biography of Polk, Eugene Irving McCormac, James K. Polk: A Political Biography (Berkeley, Calif., 1922), is still useful. More personal are two volumes by Charles G. Sellers: James K. Polk, Jacksonian, 1795–1843 and James K. Polk, Continentalist, 1843–1846 (Princeton, N.J., 1957, 1966). The first volume is unmatched on Polk's rise to power; the second should be used with McCormac and Pletcher. Polk's own account, The Diary of James K. Polk During His Presidency, 1845–1849 , edited by Milo Milton Quaife, 4 vols. (Chicago, 1910), gives fascinating insights into Polk's mind as well as an account of his daily activities.

Biographies of Polk's cabinet members show how they worked with their master. John M. Belohlavek, George Mifflin Dallas: Jacksonian Patrician (University Park, Pa., 1977), is an able study of Polk's almost ignored vice president. Philip S. Klein, President James Buchanan: A Biography (University Park, Pa., 1962), is probably still best on Polk's secretary of state. James P. Shenton, Robert John Walker: A Politician from Jackson to Lincoln (New York, 1961), and Ivor D. Spencer, The Victor and the Spoils: A Life of William L. Marcy (Providence, R.I., 1959), cover important accomplishments of the Polk administration.

On domestic issues see works by Bergeron, McCoy, McCormac, and Sellers already cited. Sections of several books treat the Polk administration: Joel H. Silbey, The Shrine of Party: Congressional Voting Behavior, 1841–1852 (Pittsburgh, Pa., 1967); John Tebbell and Sarah Miles Watts, The Press and the Presidency: From George Washington to Ronald Reagan (New York, 1985); and Leonard D. White, The Jacksonians: A Study in Administrative History, 1829–1861 (New York, 1954).

American expansionism, the background to most of Polk's foreign relations, has received much attention. Albert K. Weinberg, Manifest Destiny: A Study of Nationalist Expansionism in American History (Baltimore, 1935), the classic analysis, has several chapters on the 1840s. Frederick Merk offers somewhat different interpretations in two books, written with Lois Bannister Merk, Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History: A Reinterpretation (New York, 1963), and The Monroe Doctrine and American Expansionism, 1843–1849 (New York, 1966). About half of the latter is devoted to the Polk adminstration. Norman A. Graebner, Empire on the Pacific: A Study in American Continental Expansion (New York, 1955), focuses on Oregon and California. Thomas R. Hietala, Manifest Design: Anxious Aggrandizement in Late Jacksonian America (Ithaca, N.Y., 1985), treats expansionism essentially as a defensive maneuver intended to divert attention from problems at home. Gene M. Brack, Mexico Views Manifest Destiny, 1821–1846: An Essay on the Origins of the Mexican War (Albuquerque, N.Mex., 1975), is especially useful on the Texas question and the coming of the Mexican War.

On foreign policy, David M. Pletcher, The Diplomacy of Annexation: Texas, Oregon, and the Mexican War (Columbia, Mo., 1973), provides a presentation of the interpretation used in the present article. Glen W. Price, Origins of the War with Mexico: The Polk-Stockton Intrigue (Austin, Tex., 1967), is the most detailed exposition of the "plot thesis" concerning the coming of the Mexican War. Justin H. Smith, The Annexation of Texas , rev. ed. (New York, 1941), although originally published in 1911 and thus not based on modern scholarship, contains by far the most comprehensive account of the annexation campaign. More recent is Frederick Merk, Slavery and the Annexation of Texas (New York, 1972). Merk's The Oregon Question: Essays in Anglo-American Diplomacy and Politics (Cambridge, Mass., 1967), contains several chapters on Polk's policies. The second volume of Sellers's biography has chapters on foreign relations.

The classic study of the Mexican War is Justin H. Smith, The War with Mexico , 2 vols. (New York, 1919; repr. Gloucester, Mass., 1963), very detailed and still useful, although both anti-Polk and anti-Mexican. Pletcher, cited above, has superseded it in diplomacy. See K. Jack Bauer, The Mexican War, 1846–1848 (New York, 1974), and John S. D. Eisenhower, So Far from God: The U.S. War with Mexico, 1846–1848 (New York, 1989), for military history. Otis A. Singletary, The Mexican War (Chicago, 1960), is a short account of the military action, especially useful on the American occupation of Mexico. David Lavender, Climax at Buena Vista: The American Campaigns in Northeastern Mexico, 1846–1847 (Philadelphia, 1966), provides a good account of the first half of the war. More up-to-date and popularized overviews are Seymour V. Connor and Odie B. Faulk, North America Divided: The Mexican War, 1846–1848 (New York, 1971), and John Edward Weems, To Conquer a Peace: The War Between the United States and Mexico (Garden City, N.Y., 1974). Good biographies of the principal military leaders are Holman Hamilton, Zachary Taylor , vol. 1 (Indianapolis, Ind., 1941); K. Jack Bauer, Zachary Taylor: Soldier, Planter, Statesman of the Old Southwest (Baton Rouge, La., 1985); Charles Winslow Elliott, Winfield Scott: The Soldier and the Man (New York, 1937); and Oakah L. Jones, Jr., Santa Anna (New York, 1968). On the last phase of the war and the negotiation of the peace treaty see John Douglas Pitts Fuller, The Movement for the Acquisition of All Mexico, 1846–1848 (Baltimore, 1936); Robert W. Drexler, Guilty of Making Peace: A Biography of Nicholas P. Trist (Lanham, Md., 1991); and Richard Griswold del Castillo, The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo: A Legacy of Conflict (Norman, Okla., 1990), which, however, concentrates on post-1848 history. A remarkable study of American public opinion on the war, with emphasis on support and the effects of the war at home is Robert W. Johannsen, To the Halls of the Montezumas: The Mexican War in the American Imagination (New York, 1985). It should be balanced, however, by John H. Schroeder, Mr. Polk's War: American Opposition and Dissent, 1846–1848 (Madison, Wis., 1973).

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