James Knox Polk
|November 2, 1795, in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina
|June 15, 1849, in Nashville, Tennessee
|States in Union
|George Mifflin Dallas
|Sarah Childress Polk (Wife)
Polk’s parents were Samuel and Jane Knox Polk. Polk married Sarah Childress in 1824. They had no children.
The land of the U.S. grew by more than one million square miles under Polk’s administration. Guiding the president’s efforts was a belief known as “Manifest Destiny,” the conviction that the U.S. was entitled to rule as much of the continent as it could acquire. The tremendous expansion was not without controversy, however, and many American citizens were divided about the friction and potential war with both Great Britain and Mexico that would be necessary to gain this land. One dispute lay with Britain over the Oregon boundary. The U.S. was claiming land in the Pacific Northwest region as far north as Alaska, but the British were claiming land as far south as Portland. Because the British were not eager to fight, Polk was able to negotiate a treaty for what is now Oregon and Washington in 1846.
The second dispute lay with Mexico. Texas had been annexed by President Tyler in 1845, but Mexico challenged the border. In addition, Polk was interested in California and New Mexico, but Mexico was unwilling to negotiate. Polk sent General Zachary Taylor and the Army to the disputed area on Texas’s western border. Mexico perceived this as an act of aggression and attacked. Congress declared war, and after sixteen months of American successes, the U.S. captured Mexico City. Finally, the U.S. and Mexico negotiated the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, in which the U.S. paid $15 million and Mexico ceded a Rio Grande border for Texas, as well as what is now California, Nevada, and Utah plus much of New Mexico, Arizona, Wyoming, and Colorado.
At his inauguration, Polk stated, “In truth, though I occupy a very high position, I am the hardest working man in this country.” (1845)
“I prefer to supervise the whole operations of the Government myself rather than entrust the public business to subordinates and this makes my duties very great.”
“No President who performs his duties faithfully and conscientiously can have any leisure.”
Regarding the Mexican War and its dubious relation to slavery, Polk stated, “I learned that after an excited debate in the House a bill passed that body . . . with a mischievous and foolish amendment to the effect that no territory which might be acquired from Mexico should ever be a slave-holding country. What connection slavery had with making peace with Mexico it is difficult to conceive.” (August 9, 1846)
At This Time
1845: A potato famine devastates Ireland for the next five years, and during that time almost one million Irish emigrate to the U.S • 1846: Negotiations between the U.S. and Mexico to purchase New Mexico fail, war follows, and the U.S. annexes New Mexico • Inventor John Deere builds a plow with a steel moldboard • 1848: The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ends the Mexican-U.S. war, and the U.S. gets Texas, New Mexico, California, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming from Mexico • The first women’s rights convention meets in Seneca Falls, New York • Gold is discovered in California, which prompts the greatest mass migration in American history
Did You Know?
Polk was the first president to host a Thanksgiving dinner in the White House. He is also remembered as having worked excessively hard as president, which led him to refuse running for a second term even though he was popular and likely to win. He retired to his estate in Nashville after leaving office, but died only three months later. Many believe Polk to have literally worked himself to death. It is also likely, however, that he had contracted cholera and this led to his death.
Polk did not trust banks, so he kept all his money in paper bags hidden around his house. He also preferred using gold and silver, rather than paper currency. His wife inherited all his money when he died, but he attached one condition to the bequest “that she free their slaves upon her death.”
Information and lesson plans about Polk and his ancestral home site in Tennessee.
In-depth essays created by the University of Virginia on Polk’s administration.
Field Trips for James Knox Polk
James K. Polk Memorial State Historic Site
Pineville, North Carolina
Located on the birthplace site of President Polk, the attractions commemorate Polk’s presidency and life in North Carolina. The site is part of a parcel of land owned by Polk’s father, Samuel. The buildings are reconstructions and their furnishings are not original to the Polk family but are of the period.
James K. Polk Home and Museum
The only surviving home of President Polk, this was home to the young Polk after his college graduation until his marriage. Exhibits in the outbuildings feature memorabilia from Polk’s presidential campaign and his years in the White House, in addition to formal gardens and other features.