Polk, James K.

Born: 1795-11-02 Mecklenburg County, North Carolina

Died: 1849-06-15 Nashville, Tennessee

Born in North Carolina, James K. Polk and his family relocated to Maury County, Tennessee, when he was eleven. He began studying at Presbyterian academies in 1813 and graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1818. Polk then returned to Tennessee, where he studied law in Nashville and was admitted to the bar in 1820. He was elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives in 1823 and married his wife, Sarah Childress, the following year.

Polk served in the state legislature until 1825, when he was elected to the U. S. House of Representatives as a supporter of Andrew Jackson. He remained in the House until 1838 and served as Speaker for his last two terms. As a congressman, he continued to support Jacksonian ideals and was one of the early leaders of the Democratic Party. In 1839, Polk won the governorship of Tennessee but failed to win reelection in 1841 and 1843. In 1844, Jackson endorsed Polk as the Democratic candidate for president. Although less politically prominent, Polk narrowly defeated Henry Clay and James G. Birney in an election that highlighted the growing sectional divide in America.

As president from 1845 to 1849, Polk pursued a highly expansionist foreign policy. The annexation of Texas had been a major issue during John Tyler's presidency, and Polk made it a priority of his administration. After failing to convince Mexico to cede the territory diplomatically, Polk ordered a small force under Zachary Taylor to take position along the Rio Grande, which provoked Mexican troops to cross the river on April 24, 1846, thereby beginning the Mexican War. When the war ended in 1848, Polk had acquired all of Mexico's territory north of the Rio Grande, including Texas and California. Polk also pressed the British government to settle the dispute over the northwestern boundary between the United States and British North America. Although tensions between the two nations almost resulted in war, Britain eventually agreed on the modern border. Polk's administration also saw the establishment of an independent treasury and an overhaul of the tariff system. He refused to stand for reelection in 1849.

Although Polk succeeded in achieving his goals as president, his expansionism rankled many Whigs, including Abraham Lincoln, and his party failed to hold the presidency, resulting in Taylor's election. Polk died from cholera at his Nashville home only three months after leaving office.

Amy S. Greenburg, A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U. S. Invasion of Mexico (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012); Charles Sellers, James K. Polk (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957); James A. Rawley, "Polk, James Knox," American National Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 17:622-626.