Tuesday, May 14, 2013

James K. Polk: The Presidents

James Knox Polk, the first of ten children, was born on November 2nd, 1795 in a farmhouse (possibly a "log" cabin) in what is now Pineville, North Carolina in Mecklenburg County, just outside Charlotte. His father, Samuel Polk, was a slaveholder, successful farmer and surveyor of Scots-Irish descent. His mother, Jane Polk, was a descendant of a brother of the Scottish religious reformer John Knox. She named her firstborn after her father James Knox. Like most early Scots-Irish settlers in the North Carolina mountains, the Knox and Polk families were Presbyterian. While Jane remained a devout Presbyterian her entire life, Samuel (whose father, Ezekiel Polk, was a deist) rejected dogmatic Presbyterianism. When the parents took James to church to be baptized, the father Samuel refused to declare his belief in Christianity, and the minister refused to baptize the child. In 1803, most of Polk's relatives moved to the Duck River area in what is now Maury County, Middle Tennessee; Polk's family waited until 1806 to follow. The family grew prosperous, with Samuel Polk turning to land speculation and becoming a county judge.

Polk was home schooled. His health was problematic and in 1812 his pain became so unbearable that he was taken to Dr. Ephraim McDowell of Danville, Kentucky, who operated to remove urinary stones. Polk was awake during the operation with nothing but brandy available for anesthetic, but it was successful. The surgery may have left Polk sterile, as he did not sire any children.


When Polk recovered, his father offered to bring him into the mercantile business, but Polk refused. In July 1813, Polk enrolled at the Zion Church near his home. A year later he attended an academy in Murfreesboro, where he may have met his future wife, Sarah Childress. At Murfreesboro, Polk proved a promising student. In January 1816, he transferred and was admitted into the University of North Carolina as a second-semester sophomore. The Polks had connections with the university, then a small school of about 80 students: Sam Polk was their land agent for Tennessee, and his cousin, William Polk, was a trustee. While there, Polk joined the Dialectic Society where he regularly took part in debates and learned the art of oratory. His roommate William Dunn Moseley later became the first governor of Florida. Polk graduated with honors in May 1818. The University later named the lower quad on its main campus, Polk Place.

After graduation, Polk traveled to Nashville to study law under renowned Nashville trial attorney Felix Grundy. Grundy became Polk's first mentor. On September 20th, 1819, Polk, with Grundy's endorsement, was elected clerk for the Tennessee State Senate. Polk was reelected as clerk in 1821 without opposition, and would continue to serve until 1822. Polk was admitted to the bar in June 1820 and his first case was to defend his father against a public fighting charge, and secure his release for a one dollar fine. Polk's practice was successful as there were many cases arising from debts after the Panic of 1819.

 In 1822 Polk joined the local militia and rose to the rank of captain, and was soon promoted to colonel. Polk's oratory became popular, earning him the nickname "Napoleon of the Stump." In 1822 Polk resigned his position as clerk to run his successful campaign for the Tennessee state legislature in 1823, in which he defeated incumbent William Yancey, becoming the new representative of Maury County. In October 1823 Polk voted for Andrew Jackson to become the next United States Senator from Tennessee. Jackson won and from then on Polk was a firm supporter of Jackson.


Polk courted Sarah Childress, and they married on January 1st, 1824. Polk was then 28, and Sarah was 20 years old. They had no children. During Polk's political career, Sarah assisted her husband with his speeches, gave him advice on policy matters and played an active role in his campaigns. An old story told that Andrew Jackson had encouraged their romance when they began to court.

 In 1824, Jackson ran for President but was defeated. Though Jackson had won the popular vote, neither he nor any of the other candidates (John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, and William H. Crawford) had won a majority of the electoral vote. The House of Representatives then had to select the verdict; Clay, who had received the least amount of electoral votes and dropped from the ballot, supported Adams. Clay's support proved to be the deciding factor in the House and Adams was elected President. Adams then offered Clay a position in the Cabinet as Secretary of State

In 1825, Polk ran for the United States House of Representatives for the Tennessee's 6th congressional district. Polk vigorously campaigned in the district. Polk was so active that Sarah began to worry about his health. During the campaign, Polk's opponents said that at the age of 29 Polk was too young for a spot in the House, but he won the election and took his seat in Congress. When Polk arrived in Washington, D.C. he roomed in Benjamin Burch's boarding house with some other Tennessee representatives, including Samuel Houston. Polk made his first major speech on March 13th, 1826, in which he said that the Electoral College should be abolished and that the President should be elected by the popular vote. After Congress went into recess in the summer of 1826, Polk returned to Tennessee to see Sarah, and when Congress met again in the autumn, Polk returned to Washington with Sarah. In 1827 Polk was reelected to Congress. In 1828, Jackson ran for President again and during the campaign Polk and Jackson corresponded, with Polk giving Jackson advice on his campaign. With Jackson's victory in the election Polk began to support the administration's position in Congress. During this time, Polk continued to be reelected in the House. In August 1833, after being elected to this fifth term, Polk became the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee.


In June 1834, Speaker of the House Andrew Stevenson resigned, leaving the spot for speaker open. Polk ran against fellow Tennessean John Bell for Speaker, and, after ten ballots, Bell won. However, in 1835, Polk ran against Bell for Speaker again and won.

Polk worked for Jackson's policies as speaker, and Van Buren's when he succeeded Jackson in 1837; he appointed committees with Democratic chairs and majorities, including the New York radical C. C. Cambreleng as Chair of the Ways and Means Committee, although he maintained the facade of traditional bipartisanship. The two major issues during Polk's speakership were slavery and the economy, after the Panic of 1837. Van Buren and Polk faced pressure to rescind the Specie Circular, an act that had been signed by Jackson to boost the economy. The act required that payment for government lands be in gold and silver. However, with support from Polk and his cabinet, Van Buren chose to stick with the Specie Circular.

Polk attempted to make a more orderly house. He never challenged anyone to a duel no matter how much they insulted his honor as was customary then. Polk also issued the gag rule on petitions from abolitionists.

Polk remains the only president who served as Speaker of the House.

In 1838, the political situation in Tennessee - where, in 1835, Democrats had lost the governorship for the first time in their party's history - persuaded Polk to return to help the party at home. Leaving Congress in 1839, Polk became a candidate in the Tennessee gubernatorial election, defeating the incumbent Whig, Newton Cannon by about 2,500 votes, out of about 105,000.

Polk's three major programs during his governorship; regulating state banks, implementing state internal improvements, and improving education all did not get approval by the legislature. In the presidential election of 1840, Van Buren was overwhelmingly defeated by a popular Whig, William Henry Harrison. Polk received one electoral vote from Tennessee for Vice President in the election. Polk lost his own reelection to James C. Jones, in 1841, by 3,243 votes. He challenged Jones in 1843, campaigning across the state and publicly debating against Jones, but was defeated again, this time by a slightly greater margin of 3,833 votes.

 Polk initially hoped to be nominated for vice president at the Democratic convention, which began on May 27, 1844. The leading contender for the presidential nomination was former President Martin Van Buren, who wanted to stop the expansion of slavery. Other candidates included James Buchanan, General Lewis Cass, Cave Johnson, John C. Calhoun, and Levi Woodbury. The primary point of political contention involved the Republic of Texas, which, after declaring independence from Mexico in 1836, had asked to join the United States, but was refused by Washington. Van Buren opposed the annexation but in doing so lost the support of many Democrats, including former President Andrew Jackson, who still had much influence. Van Buren won a simple majority on the convention's first ballot but did not attain the two-thirds supermajority required for nomination. When it became clear after another six ballots that Van Buren would not win the required majority, Polk emerged as a "dark horse" candidate. After an indecisive eighth ballot, the convention unanimously nominated Polk.

Before the convention, Jackson told Polk that he was his favorite for the nomination of the Democratic Party. Even with this support, Polk instructed his managers at the convention to support Van Buren if he could win the nomination. This assured that if a deadlocked convention occurred, initial supporters of Van Buren would pick Polk as a compromise candidate for the Democrats. In the end, this is exactly what happened as a result of Polk's support of westward expansion.

When advised of his nomination, Polk replied: "It has been well observed that the office of President of the United States should neither be sought nor declined. I have never sought it, nor should I feel at liberty to decline it, if conferred upon me by the voluntary suffrages of my fellow citizens." Because the Democratic Party was splintered into bitter factions, Polk promised to serve only one term if elected, hoping that his disappointed rival Democrats would unite behind him with the knowledge that another candidate would be chosen in four years.

Polk's Whig opponent in the 1844 presidential election was Henry Clay of Kentucky. (Incumbent Whig President John Tyler - a former Democrat - had become estranged from the Whigs and was not nominated for a second term.) The annexation of Texas, which was at the forefront during the Democratic Convention, again dominated the campaign. Polk was a strong proponent of immediate annexation, while Clay seemed more equivocal and vacillating.

In the election, Polk and his running mate, George M. Dallas, won in the South and West, while Clay drew support in the Northeast. Polk lost both his home state, North Carolina, and his state of residence, Tennessee, the most recent successful presidential candidate to do so. but won New York, where Clay lost votes to the antislavery Liberty Party candidate James G. Birney. Also contributing to Polk's victory was the support of new immigrant voters, who opposed the Whigs' policies. Polk won the popular vote by a margin of about 39,000 out of 2.6 million, and took the Electoral College with 170 votes to Clay's 105. Polk won 15 states, while Clay won 11.

 When he took office on March 4, 1845, Polk, at 49, became the youngest man at the time to assume the presidency.


Pledged to serve only one term, he accomplished all these objectives in just four years. By linking acquisition of new lands in Oregon (with no slavery) and Texas (with slavery), he hoped to satisfy both North and South.
During his presidency James K. Polk was known as "Young Hickory", an allusion to his mentor Andrew Jackson, and "Napoleon of the Stump" for his speaking skills.

 During his presidency, many abolitionists harshly criticized him as an instrument of the "Slave Power", and claimed that spreading slavery was the reason he supported annexing Texas and later war with Mexico. Polk stated in his diary that he believed slavery could not exist in the territories won from Mexico, but refused to endorse the Wilmot Proviso that would forbid it there. Polk argued instead for extending the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific Ocean, which would prohibit the expansion of slavery above 36° 30' west of Missouri, but allow it below that line if approved by eligible voters in the territory. William Dusinberre has argued that Polk's diary, which he kept during his presidency, was written for later publication, and does not represent Polk's policy.

Polk was a slaveholder for his entire life. His father, Samuel Polk, had left Polk more than 8,000 acres of land, and divided about 53 slaves to his widow and children after he died. James inherited twenty of his father's slaves, either directly or from deceased brothers. In 1831, he became an absentee cotton planter, sending slaves to clear plantation land that his father had left him near Somerville, Tennessee. Four years later Polk sold his Somerville plantation and, together with his brother-in-law, bought 920 acres (3.7 km²) of land, a cotton plantation near Coffeeville, Mississippi. He ran this plantation for the rest of his life, eventually taking it over completely from his brother-in-law. Polk rarely sold slaves, although once he became President and could better afford it, he bought more. Polk's will stipulated that their slaves were to be freed after his wife Sarah had died. However, the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation and the 1865 Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution freed all remaining slaves in rebel states long before the death of his wife in 1891.

 Polk strongly supported expansion. Democrats believed that opening up more land for yeoman farmers was critical for the success of republican virtue. Like most Southerners, he supported the annexation of Texas. To balance the interests of North and South, he wanted to acquire the Oregon Country (present-day Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and British Columbia) as well. He sought to purchase California, which Mexico had neglected.

 After the Texas annexation, Polk turned his attention to California, hoping to acquire the territory from Mexico before any European nation did so. The main interest was San Francisco Bay as an access point for trade with Asia. In 1845, he sent diplomat John Slidell to Mexico to purchase California and New Mexico for $24 - 30 million. Slidell's arrival caused political turmoil in Mexico after word leaked out that he was there to purchase additional territory and not to offer compensation for the loss of Texas. The Mexicans refused to receive Slidell, citing a technical problem with his credentials. In January 1846, to increase pressure on Mexico to negotiate, Polk sent troops under General Zachary Taylor into the area between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande - territory that was claimed by both the U.S. and Mexico.

 Slidell returned to Washington in May 1846, having been rebuffed by the Mexican government. Polk regarded this treatment of his diplomat as an insult and an "ample cause of war", and he prepared to ask Congress for a declaration of war. Meanwhile Taylor crossed the Rio Grande River and briefly occupied Matamoros, Tamaulipas. Taylor continued to blockade ships from entering the port of Matamoros. Mere days before Polk intended to make his request to Congress, he received word that Mexican forces had crossed the Rio Grande area and killed eleven American soldiers. Polk then made this the casus belli, and in a message to Congress on May 11thy, 1846, he stated that Mexico had "invaded our territory and shed American blood upon the American soil."


Some Whigs, such as Abraham Lincoln, challenged Polk's version of events, but Congress overwhelmingly approved the declaration of war. Many Whigs feared that opposition would cost them politically by casting themselves as unpatriotic for not supporting the war effort.

In the House, antislavery Whigs led by John Quincy Adams voted against the war; among Democrats, Senator John C. Calhoun was the most notable opponent of the declaration.

Polk selected the top generals and set the military strategy of the war. By the summer of 1846, American forces under General Stephen W. Kearny had captured New Mexico. Meanwhile, Army captain John C. Frémont led settlers in northern California to overthrow the Mexican garrison in Sonoma (in the Bear Flag Revolt). General Zachary Taylor, at the same time, was having success on the Rio Grande, although Polk did not reinforce his troops there. The United States also negotiated a secret arrangement with Antonio López de Santa Anna, the Mexican general and dictator who had been overthrown in 1844. Santa Anna agreed that, if given safe passage into Mexico, he would attempt to persuade those in power to sell California and New Mexico to the United States. Once he reached Mexico, however, he reneged on his agreement, declared himself President, and tried to drive the American invaders back. Santa Anna's efforts, however, were in vain, as Generals Taylor and Winfield Scott destroyed all resistance. Scott captured Mexico City in September 1847, and Taylor won a series of victories in northern Mexico. Even after these battles, Mexico did not surrender until 1848, when it agreed to peace terms set out by Polk.

Polk sent diplomat Nicholas Trist to negotiate with the Mexicans. Lack of progress prompted the President to order Trist to return to the United States, but the diplomat ignored the instructions and stayed in Mexico to continue bargaining. Trist successfully negotiated the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, which Polk agreed to ratify, ignoring calls from Democrats who demanded that all Mexico be annexed. The treaty added 1.2 million square miles of territory to the United States; Mexico's size was halved, while that of the United States increased by a third. California, Nevada, Utah, most of Arizona, and parts of New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming were all included in the Mexican Cession. The treaty also recognized the annexation of Texas and acknowledged American control over the disputed territory between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande. Mexico, in turn, received $15 million. The war claimed fewer than 20,000 American lives but over 50,000 Mexican ones. It may have cost the United States $100 million. Finally, the Wilmot Proviso injected the issue of slavery in the new territories, even though Polk had insisted to Congress and in his diary that this had never been a war goal.

The treaty, however, needed ratification by the Senate. In March 1848, the Whigs, who had been so opposed to Polk's policy, suddenly changed position. Two-thirds of the Whigs voted for Polk's treaty. This ended the war and legalized the acquisition of the territories.

 The war had serious consequences for Polk and the Democrats. It gave the Whig Party a unifying message of denouncing the war as an immoral act of aggression carried out through abuse of power by the president. In the 1848 election, however, the Whigs nominated General Zachary Taylor, a war hero, and celebrated his victories. Taylor refused to criticize Polk. As a result of the strain of managing the war effort directly and in close detail, Polk's health markedly declined toward the end of his presidency.

Polk's time in the White House took its toll on his health. Full of enthusiasm and vigor when he entered office, Polk left on March 4, 1849, exhausted by his years of public service. He lost weight and had deep lines on his face and dark circles under his eyes. He is believed to have contracted cholera in New Orleans, Louisiana, on a goodwill tour of the South. He died at his new home, Polk Place, in Nashville, Tennessee, at 3:15 pm on June 15, 1849, three months after leaving office. He was buried on the grounds of Polk Place. Polk's last words illustrate his devotion to his wife: "I love you, Sarah. For all eternity, I love you." She lived at Polk Place for over forty years after his death. She died on August 14, 1891. Polk was also survived by his mother, Jane Knox Polk, who died on January 11th, 1852.

Polk had the shortest retirement of all Presidents at 103 days. He was the youngest former president to die in retirement at the age of 53. He and his wife are buried in a tomb on the grounds of the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville, Tennessee. The tomb was moved to this location in 1893 after his home at Polk Place was demolished.






Source: Wikipedia

This work is released under CC 3.0 by SA - Creative Commons


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