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The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Polk, James Knox

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POLK, James Knox, 11th President of the United States; b. Mecklenburg County, N. C., 2 Nov. 1795; d. Nashville, Tenn., 15 June 1849. He was of Scotch-Irish ancestry and was reared near the North Carolina frontier amid the hard, simple surroundings of plain farmers. He was graduated at the University of North Carolina in 1818 and settled in Tennessee, where be studied law under Felix Grundy, then one of the foremost public men of the West. He was admitted to the bar in 1820 and he began the practice of his profession at Columbia in middle Tennessee. Becoming a member of Congress in 1823, he at once took sides against Henry Clay and became a leader of great force. He remained in the House of Representatives 14 years, serving two terms as speaker at a time when the bitterness of the sections, as displayed in Congress, made the office one of the greatest difficulty. He was recognized as an able Jacksonian Democrat in 1840, when he was occasionally discussed as a probable candidate for the Vice-Presidency. But the evenly balanced state of politics in Tennessee and the importance of the State in national affairs caused him to become a candidate for the governorship of the State in 1839. He was elected and served two years, but was defeated in spite of all Jackson could do for him in 1841 and again in 1843. Under these rather adverse circumstances, his candidacy for the Vice-Presidency with Van Buren in 1844 was widely pressed. But the one issue which determined the nominations of that year was the proposed annexation of Texas. A group of ardent Southerners and Democrats, led by Robert J. Walker of Mississippi, was bent upon compelling Van Buren to agree to annex Texas in case he were elected. Van Buren had never been willing to make an explicit declaration of his views on the subject. He had been badly defeated for a second term in 1840, in a way which caused him and his friends to think he was entitled to a renomination in 1844. As the time for the assembling of the Democratic convention approached Senator Walker and other Southerners pressed for a declaration. Van Buren visited Jackson in April and on his return called upon Henry Clay at Lexington. On his return home late in April he gave out a public statement opposing the annexation of Texas. What made this announcement so extraordinary was the fact that on the same day Clay, then at Raleigh, N. C., made a similar public announcement. The excitement all over the South was intense. Walker and others secured the release of Southern delegates to the convention which was to meet in May from their instructions to vote for the nomination of Van Buren. In the Northwest a similar desertion of the New York leader took place. When the convention met there was great turmoil. Van Buren was, however, promptly defeated. After some manœeuvring Polk was chosen as the party candidate. He was an ardent Texas man. Calhoun who was then, as always, a powerful leader in the South, supported Polk with enthusiasm and he was elected. It was one of the few cases in American history when the issue was perfectly clear and when the people understood what was to be done in the event of the success of Polk. The Democratic platform declared pointedly for the reannexation of Texas and the reoccupation of Oregon, a vast region then little known to the country but held jointly by the United States and England. Polk favored the seizure of all of Oregon, upon the giving of a year's notice of his intention to Great Britain, and it was his known opinion on this subject that secured him the hearty support of Northwestern leaders like Cass and Douglas. It was what has been called the bargain of the Baltimore convention, that is, that Southern men would support the demand for all Oregon to the southern boundary of Alaska on condition that Northwestern men would support the plan for the annexation of Texas. Polk was an avowed expansionist and he was elected upon the issue, Clay being defeated for the third and last time. George M. Dallas of Pennsylvania, a popular protectionist, was the candidate for the Vice-Presidency, notwithstanding the fact that Polk had always been known as an opponent of the principle as well as the practice of a protective tariff. In spite of the difference of opinion Polk and Dallas made an able and successful administration. James Buchanan was Secretary of State and Robert J. Walker Secretary of the Treasury. George Bancroft was also a member of this Cabinet. Clay opposed the administration most bitterly and both Webster and Calhoun, in spite of the recent friendliness of the latter, were leaders of the opposition in the Senate. Few Presidents have met with such powerful opposition in Congress, and Van Buren, with his friends, held aloof, refusing their support at critical times. Yet Polk completed the annexation of Texas, solved the Oregon problem, but without securing all of the disputed territory, settled the long standing tariff dispute between the South and the North and established a new treasury system which continued till the outbreak of the Civil War. No other President with the exception of Wilson has placed upon the Federal statute books so many and such vital general laws. Nor was this all. Polk sought to procure by treaty certain lands claimed by Texas in the autumn of 1845 and he hoped to purchase New Mexico and California, where only a few thousand Spanish-Mexicans lived. John Slidell was sent to negotiate these delicate matters. He failed and at the same time irritated the already angry Mexicans. Meanwhile a small American army under the command of Gen. Zachary Taylor had already occupied part of the area claimed by both countries. The Mexicans attacked Taylor and war ensued. Upon the receipt of the news of victories in northern Mexico great excitement was aroused in the United States. Westerners and Southerners volunteered in great numbers. Polk pressed the war with vigor but he did not restrain army and navy men or the land hungry elements of the country from crying for the annexation of the whole of Mexico. At one time Polk himself, urged by two or three members of the Cabinet, contemplated the dismemberment of the unfortunate country. At the close of the war, not only the Texan claims but New Mexico, Arizona and California were demanded and received by the American commissioners. Polk and his group of followers were undoubtedly the most imperialistic of American leaders. The result of their policy was the annexation of about 1,000,000 square miles of fresh and valuable territory. But in the imperialistic campaign, supported by the West and the South, a part of Oregon was lost to the United States. That created ill feeling in the North toward Polk. About the same tune that Polk agreed to yield to Great Britain the northern half of Oregon, he angered Northwesterners by vetoing a bill which proposed large appropriations for the improvement of harbors on the Great Lakes and for the dredging certain rivers in the same region. This was the beginning of the schism in the Democratic party for which the defeat of Van Buren in the Baltimore convention had prepared the way; Lewis Cass, a friend of Polk, could not hold his followers in line. The Wilmot proviso, a direct attack upon the President's annexationist program, was attached to important legislation and became the cause of a most bitter conflict among those who had elevated Polk to the Presidency. As the Mexican War drew to a close, Polk saw that a renomination was out of the question. He recommended the nomination of Cass by his party, but Van Buren and his friends united with the Liberty Party men and the malcontents of the Northwest to form a new party which took the name of Free Soilers. They polled votes enough to defeat Cass and the Democratic party and Polk retired chagrined if not directly defeated to his home in the spring of 1849. But his work remained. He died the following June at the capital of his State. (See Mexico, American Diplomatic Relations with). Consult Jenkins, J. S., ‘Life of James K. Polk’ (Auburn, N. Y., 1850); Tyler, L. G., ‘The Times of the Tylers’; Smith, Justin H., ‘The Annexation of Texas’; Reeves, Jesse S., ‘The Diplomacy of Tyler and Polk’; Quaife, M. M., ‘The Diary of James K. Polk’ {4 vols., Chicago 1910).

William E. Dodd,
Professor of History, Chicago University.