The New Student's Reference Work/Polk, James Knox

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James K. Polk

Polk (pōk), James Knox, eleventh president of the United States, was born in Mecklenburg County, N. C., Nov. 2, 1795.  He was educated at the University of North Carolina, and after studying law was admitted to the bar at Columbia, Tenn., in 1820.  Three years after this he was chosen a member of the legislature, and in 1825 was elected to Congress as a Democrat.  In 1835 he was made speaker of the house of representatives, a position which he filled with credit and ability.  In 1844 he was the Democratic candidate for the presidency against Henry Clay, and was elected by a popular majority of only 38,000 but by an electoral vote of 175 to 105.  The principal feature of Polk’s administration was the Mexican War, by which the United States acquired Texas, California and New Mexico (then including Arizona).  Texas was annexed just before Polk’s inauguration; and soon after he became president he sent General Taylor to occupy the disputed territory between the Nueces and Rio Grande, Mexico claiming that this territory never belonged to Texas.  In March, 1846, Taylor advanced to the Rio Grande and built Fort Brown, opposite the Mexican port of Matamoras.  General Arista, the Mexican commander, then crossed the Rio Grande to attack Taylor, but was defeated at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma, and forced to recross the river.  War was at once declared by Congress against Mexico and was prosecuted with energy and vigor until the City of Mexico was occupied by General Scott in September, 1847.  During Polk’s administration, by a compromise treaty with England, the northern boundary line of Oregon territory — now the state of Washington — was fixed at 49°.  The low-tariff act of 1846 was a favorite measure of Polk’s, being passed in the senate by the casting vote of Vice-president Dallas.  Other features of his administration were the admission of Wisconsin as a state in 1848; the adoption of the subtreasury system by which the funds of the government are kept in vaults in Washington instead of being deposited in banks; and the creation of the interior department, its secretary being added to the cabinet.  On the expiring of Polk’s term he retired to his home, Nashville, Tenn., where he died, June 15, 1849.