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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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