Polk emerged as the champion of “manifest destiny,” the belief that the United States enjoyed a special dispensation and even imperative to extend its boundaries westward, even all the way to the Pacific coast. To carry out such a mandate, providential or otherwise, Polk used war and diplomacy to push the borders across the continent to the southwest as well as the northwest. Convinced that such efforts would excite and unify the nation, he seemed unprepared for the divisions created by his bold territorial initiatives.
Polk was the first “dark horse” presidential candidate. Originally considered only as a possible nominee for vice president, Polk became the Democratic presidential candidate as the result of a deadlock among Martin Van Buren, Lewis Cass, and James Buchanan. The virtually unknown Polk surprised the nation by winning the close election of 1844 with his popular position favoring the annexation of Texas and acquiring the Oregon territory from Britain.
James K. Polk died in Nashville Tennessee on June 15, 1849. He was 53 years and 225 days old. He is buried in the State Capitol Ground, Nashville, Tenn.
Resolved to serve only one term, Polk acted swiftly to fulfill his campaign promises. In just four years, he oversaw annexation of Texas, a settlement of the Oregon boundary dispute with Great Britain that secured the Oregon Territory for the United States, and reestablishment of an independent treasury system. The U.S. went to war with Mexico in April 1846; when the war ended in February 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the U.S. acquired territory from Mexico that eventually became California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming. Polk had presided over an expansion of U.S. territory second in scope only to that of the Louisiana Purchase.
Polk favored states' rights and supported Jackson's plan to dismantle the Bank of the United States and replace it with a decentralized government banking system. Polk later earned the nickname "Young Hickory," a reference to his mentor Jackson, who was dubbed "Old Hickory" for his toughness.
On the domestic front, Polk reduced tariffs in an effort to stimulate trade and created an independent U.S. Treasury. (Federal funds had previously been deposited in private or state banks.) Also during this time, the U.S. Naval Academy, Smithsonian Institution and Department of Interior were each established, and in addition to Texas, two more states–Iowa (1846) and Wisconsin (1848)–joined the Union.
"On the same day, April 26, 1844, Democrat Van Buren and Whig Henry Clay made strikingly similar statements in two competing Washington newspapers declaring their strong opposition to the early annexation of the independent Republic of Texas as part of the United States. It was a seminal moment in the history of the United States. These two Premier politicians, one or the other destined to become the next president, abysmally mistead national public sentiment and simultaneously adopted a flawed and fatal political strategy. Texas was part of the fiber of the country; Texans were citizens exiled only by temporary circumstance.
Polk graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1818 and read law in Nashville for a year although he still called his family's house home. After passing the bar, Polk returned to Columbia to this house, opened his own practice, and quickly achieved success. He rapidly rose through the ranks of government, serving in the United States House of Representatives from 1825 until his election as governor of Tennessee in 1839. He was Speaker of the House from 1835-1839 and was an unfailing supporter of Andrew Jackson.
Born to Samuel and Jane Knox Polk on November 2, 1795 in Mecklenburg County, N.C., Polk was the first of their ten children. Polk’s father and grandfather (Ezekiel Polk) were successful economic and cultural leaders in the Mecklenburg community. Young Polk imbibed the political teachings of his elders and the religious instruction (strict Calvinism) of his mother. Eventually, in 1806 when James was ten years old, he moved with his family to Middle Tennessee, where his grandfather had settled a few years earlier.
Polk kept his promise not to run for a second term and was succeeded in office by the hero of the Mexican War, Zachary Taylor, candidate of the opposition Whig Party and a man whom Polk despised. Less than three months later, Polk was dead, possibly of cholera contracted on a long tour of the southern states. He left most of his estate to his wife, with the request that she free their slaves upon her death. Polk left behind a country that was both larger and weaker—expanded by more than a million square miles but fatally torn over the key issue these new lands had once again brought to the fore: slavery.