Eleventh President James K Polk is often touted as America's first "dark horse" candidate. Considered a man who was plucked from relative obscurity to command the republic, Polk's administration not only oversaw one of the last pushes for territorial expansion for the United States, but also fulfilled his campaign promises by accomplishing his stated priorities all in a single term.
Tune in as I dive into the presidential administration of James Polk. Was he really a dark horse? And what does his presidency say about the nation at the time?
Bado, Kirk A and Jake Lowary. “Why there’s still a fight in Tennessee about where to bury President James K. Polk.” The Tennessean. March 24, 2017. (LINK)
Borneman, Walter R.. Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America. (United States: Random House Publishing Group, 2009.)
Inaugural Address of James K Polk. March 4, 1845. The Avalon Project. (LINK)
“James K. Polk.” Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia.(LINK)
The inestimable value of our Federal Union is felt and acknowledged by all. By this system of united and confederated States our people are permitted collectively and individually to seek their own happiness in their own way, and the consequences have been most auspicious. Since the Union was formed the number of the States has increased from thirteen to twenty-eight; two of these have taken their position as members of the Confederacy within the last week. Our population has increased from three to twenty millions. New communities and States are seeking protection under its aegis, and multitudes from the Old World are flocking to our shores to participate in its blessings. Beneath its benign sway peace and prosperity prevail. Freed from the burdens and miseries of war, our trade and intercourse have extended throughout the world. Mind, no longer tasked in devising means to accomplish or resist schemes of ambition, usurpation, or conquest, is devoting itself to man's true interests in developing his faculties and powers and the capacity of nature to minister to his enjoyments. Genius is free to announce its inventions and discoveries, and the hand is free to accomplish whatever the head conceives not incompatible with the rights of a fellow-being. All distinctions of birth or of rank have been abolished. All citizens, whether native or adopted, are placed upon terms of precise equality. All are entitled to equal rights and equal protection. No union exists between church and state, and perfect freedom of opinion is guaranteed to all sects and creeds.
James K Polk March 4, 1845.
Welcome to Civics and Coffee. My name is Alycia and I am a self-professed history nerd. Each week, I am going to chat about a topic on U.S history and give you both the highlights and occasionally break down some of the complexities in history; and share stories you may not remember learning in high school. All in the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee.
Hey everyone, welcome back.
A couple of weeks ago, I shared the history of one of the most iconic educational institutions in the United States, the Smithsonian. In that episode, I mentioned it was 11th president James Polk’s signature that established the museum.
James Polk, like many political figures, is a complicated and nuanced man. Depending on the historian, Polk is either the smartest, most savvy political mastermind of his generation or a president who missed opportunities.
So this week I am diving into the presidency of James K. Polk. How did he become known as the first dark horse in american politics? And what does his administration tell us about the state of the nation?
Grab your cup of coffee, peeps. Let’s do this.
The quote at the beginning of the episode is from Polk’s inaugural address on March 4, 1845. Polk assumed office as the country was in the throes of manifest destiny and his support of expansion was a significant factor in his election. But before we dive into all of that, exactly who was James Polk?
Born on November 2, 1795, James Knox Polk was the first of ten children born to his planter family in a log cabin in North Carolina. Polk’s ancestors arrived along the shores of the burgeoning republic in the 1720s and both of his grandfather’s fought in the American Revolution. At the age of ten, the family picked up stakes and moved west, joining paternal grandfather Ezekiel Polk, to make a new home in Maury County, Tennessee. The family acquired thousands of acres of land and enslaved individuals, claiming nearly fifty at the high point.
Polk was committed to education, graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1818 before pursuing training as a lawyer. He met, fell in love with, and married Sarah Childress on January 1st, 1824. Polk was deeply interested in politics and ran for a seat in the United States House of Representatives. Politically astute, Polk helped ensure victory by supplying loads of liquor to the local election districts, including gallons of whiskey, cider and brandy. His ploy worked and Polk captured the seat in 1825. He served seven terms in the House and secured the speakership in 1835. Polk was a close friend and political ally of former episode subject Andrew Jackson and his support of the man referred to as Old Hickory earned Polk his own moniker - Young Hickory. During his time as speaker, Polk worked hard in support of Jackson, and later Van Buren’s policies, including securing and enforcing the gag rule prohibiting the discussion of slavery in the house.
However, with the economic downturn that came with the Panic of 1837, Polk decided his time in the house was nearing its end and instead of facing an election loss, announced his decision to not run again in 1839, instead shifting his focus to become Governor of Tennessee. Polk successfully challenged Whig incumbent Newton Cannon, winning the governor’s seat by just under 3,000 votes. Unfortunately, the economic recession made being a democrat unpopular and Polk lost his bid for reelection in 1841 and a second failed challenge for the Governorship in 1843 prompted Polk to reassess his political future.
Unable to win at the state level, Polk was not quite done and therefore shifted his attention again to federal office. Not interested in reliving his time as a member of the house, and probably more than a little worried about his chances in a senate campaign, Polk put his attention towards securing the Vice Presidency. Behind the scenes, Polk worked with his friends to start a letter writing campaign to the political players in the Democratic Party touting his availability for the second spot, fully anticipating Martin Van Buren’s nomination at the upcoming convention. However at least one party elder was unimpressed with Van Buren and sought to shake things up by courting a different candidate.
One of the most contentious issues heading into the 1844 election was the debate over Texas annexation. Whig candidate Henry Clay came out in opposition to annexation, and incumbent John Tyler was very vocally in support of annexation. However, without a party or any structured base rallying behind him, Tyler’s chances at winning reelection were growing dimmer by the day. This gave Martin Van Buren the opportunity to put himself firmly in the camp of annexation, differentiating himself from his main opponent, Clay. Nervous about losing his supporters in the Northeast, however, made Van Buren come out against annexation, which only angered Old Hickory.
Polk’s long time political ally and friend Andrew Jackson requested Polk make his way to the Hermitage as quickly as possible. The two met on May 13, 1844 and Jackson made it plain that Van Buren no longer held his trust or support and that he believed Polk should consider running for President, not Vice President. It was only after Jackson’s intervention that Polk began to reconsider his pursuit of the second office, writing to a friend quote, “General Jackson says the candidate for the first office should be an annexation man, and from the southwest, and he and other friends here urge that my friends should insist upon that point. I tell them and it is true, that I have never aspired so high, and that in all probability the attempt to place me in the first position would be utterly abortive,” end quote.
However, according to Polk biographer and historian Walter Borneman, this may have all been a bit of false modesty. As he writes in his treatment of the president, quote: “Polk’s assertion that the Vice Presidency was his ultimate political goal is inconsistent with every political move he made from his first election as clerk of the Tennessee senate,” end quote. Considering Polk was only 48 in 1844, Borneman contends that it would be uncharacteristic of someone with Polk’s astute political knowledge to limit himself to a position that by and large held little political clout. Furthering his argument, Borneman points to a letter written by Polk where he seemed to wink at the potential for securing the nomination, writing quote: “I aspire to the second office and should be gratified to receive the nomination - and think it probable that my friends may be able to confer it upon me. I am however in their hands and they can use my name in any way they may think proper,” end quote. Basically, Polk was hedging his bets. As long as Van Buren was still in the race, he did not want to appear over eager, but should the chain of events lead to his nomination, he would accept it.
Whatever the story, heading into the 1844 Democratic Convention, James Polk remained publicly in support of Martin Van Buren. However, expansionist fever ruled the day and Van Buren was unable to capture the two-thirds of the votes cast - a requirement to securing the nomination. Tired and without a candidate after seven ballots, the convention took a break and some political maneuvering identified the as yet mentioned Polk as the solid compromise candidate. Finally, on the ninth ballot, James K Polk was nominated as the Democratic candidate for President.
Upon receiving the news on July 6th, Polk worked to undercut his political opponent Henry Clay, announcing he would only commit to serving a single term. While it may seem odd for a candidate to limit their potential so early in the election process, Polk’s announcement helped neutralize the Whig criticism of potential presidential overreach. Remember, Jackson was referred to as King Andrew and the Whigs as a party believed power should be leveraged by Congress, not the president. It also meant that, if elected, Polk could spend significant political capital to accomplish his goals without worrying about saving anything for a reelection bid.
Polk’s nomination, as a man pulled from relative obscurity considering his two time loss for Governor, helped certify him as a political dark horse. This title would become permanent once the votes for president were counted and Polk declared the winner by the thinnest margin in United States history. The deciding state, New York, went for Polk by just 5,000 votes putting him over the hump with the state’s thirty-six electoral votes.
Turning back to his inaugural address, it is clear Polk understood the country was going through a phase of massive expansion and was enjoying an extended period of peace and used his speech, in part, to tout the benefits of being in such a position. Polk was focused on four key goals during his administration: securing access to Oregon, reestablishing an independent treasury, acquiring California from Mexico, and reducing tariffs. These efforts would throw Polk’s administration into the deep end of four hot button issues: expansion, slavery, banking, and taxes - the same issues that plagued mentor and predecessor, Andrew Jackson.
For Oregon, Polk sought to obtain total control of the area which had been shared with Great Britain since 1818. Polk requested Congress to pass a resolution notifying Great Britain of the United States’ intention to terminate the joint occupancy agreement, as agreed upon by both parties in a prior treaty. The House successfully passed the resolution on February 9th, 1846; the Senate, however, was another matter entirely. Many with expansionist fever pushed for the United States border to run along the 54 degrees and 40 minutes north parallel - even turning it into a slogan “54 40 or Fight.” They wanted assurances the entire region would come under U.S. control. While Polk initially called for similar terms, he inevitably ended up accepting a compromise where the United States border stood at the 49th parallel. Polk, rapidly headed towards an armed conflict with Mexico over Texas and California, was likely hesitant to start two wars over territory, especially considering Great Britain was open to negotiations.
As for the fight over Texas and California… Well, that is a bit more complicated. So much so that I decided to dedicate an entire episode to the conflict so you will have to come back to hear all about it. However, I think even the smallest of history students knows that when all was said and done, the United States under James Polk acquired quite a bit of territory - more than one million square miles. During Polk’s administration, three states were added to the union - Texas in 1845, followed by Iowa in 1846 and Wisncosin in 1848. Not to mention the territories that would later become California, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and Washington, just to name a few.
Polk also established the Department of the Interior, which brought the Bureau of the Census, General Land Office, Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Patent office, and the Pension office under one department. He also successfully re-established an independent treasury, lowered tariffs, and signed legislation establishing the Smithsonian. Needless to say, his administration was quite busy.
As he promised prior to his election, Polk retired after his first term as President. However, Polk wasn’t quite done making history, dying a short three months after his tenure of office, thus making his the shortest presidential retirement in history as of this recording in 2023. Upon vacating the White House, Polk and his wife Sarah embarked on a robust tour of the southern United States before retiring to their estate nicknamed Polk Place. While touring the south, the president was celebrated widely with hundreds of people enthusiastically welcoming the former politician and his wife. However, the deep south was in the midst of a cholera outbreak, which took the lives of several Americans, including a few who were traveling on the same vessel as Polk. He too became ill along the journey, taking a respite from the tour for a few days. After a doctor assured him he was cholera free, Polk continued on with the tour ending with a large celebration in Nashville on April 2nd.
However, by June, the former president was sick again and despite the best efforts of medicine at the time, James Polk died on June 15th, 1849 at the age of 53. His supposed last words were spoken to his wife Sarah and were quote: “I love you, Sarah, for all eternity, I love you,” end quote.
His body was initially buried at a specific cemetery due to his death being caused by an infectious disease. In 1850 his body was moved to a family tomb on the grounds of Polk Place, per his final wishes. Also included in his final wishes was that Sarah manumit their slaves upon her death. As I will discuss further when I cover Sarah Polk, this was another four decades away. Both James and Sarah Polk were moved from their family tomb in 1893 to Tennessee’s capitol building in Nashville. Apparently this move was the result of a disagreement about Polk’s will, causing the court to invalidate the document and prompting the transfer of the deceased former president and his spouse. The Polks remained buried along the eastern lawn of the capitol ever since, but it seems as though they may be moved once more. In recent years, legislators have debated whether the Polks should be transferred from the capitol building to his childhood home in Columbia, Tennessee where there is a museum and historic grounds in his honor. Opinions are mixed and it appears as of right now, the Polks are safely ensconced within the capitol gardens, but who knows what the future may bring.
A president who accomplished the goals he set for himself, James Polk can be viewed as a wise and capable politician. However, critics point to his failure to recognize the ever growing divide in the country over slavery as a reason he should not be celebrated, arguing his actions over securing Texas and California helped expedite the internal fracture of the nation and the Civil War.
Wherever you land, I think it is safe to say the United States might look very different if it wasn’t for Polk’s presidential actions. Adding over a million acres of land and overseeing the admittance of several states, Polk embodied the manifest destiny fever of the time and forever shaped the country’s landscape.
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Thanks, peeps. I’ll see you next week.
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