The Presidents of the United States, 1789-1914/James K. Polk
James Knox Polk, eleventh president of the United States, born in Mecklenburg County, N. C., November 2, 1795; died in Nashville, Tenn., June 15, 1849. He was a son of Samuel Polk, whose father, Ezekiel, was a brother of Col. Thomas, grandson of Robert Polk or Pollock, who was born in Ireland and emigrated to the United States. His mother was Jane, daughter of James Knox, a resident of Iredell County, N. C., and a captain in the war of the Revolution. His father, Samuel, a farmer, removed in the autumn of 1806 to the rich valley of Duck river, a tributary of the Tennessee, and made a new home in a section that was erected the following year into the county of Maury. Besides cultivating the tract of land he had purchased, Samuel at intervals followed the occupation of a surveyor, acquired a fortune equal to his wants, and lived until 1827. His son James was brought up on the farm, and not only assisted in its management, but frequently accompanied his father in his surveying expeditions, during which they were often absent for weeks. He was inclined to study, often busied himself with his father's mathematical calculations, and was fond of reading. He was sent to school, and had succeeded in mastering the English branches when ill health compelled his removal. He was then placed with a merchant, but, having a strong dislike to commercial pursuits, he obtained permission to return home after a few weeks trial, and in July, 1813, was given in charge of a private tutor. In 1815 he entered the sophomore class at the University of North Carolina, of which institution his cousin, William, was a trustee. As a student young Polk was correct, punctual, and industrious. At his graduation in 1818 he was officially acknowledged to be the best scholar in both the classics and mathematics, and delivered the Latin salutatory. In 1847 the university conferred upon him the degree of LL.D. In 1819 he entered the law-office of Felix Grundy, who was then at the head of the Tennessee bar. While pursuing his legal studies he attracted the attention of Andrew Jackson, who soon afterward was appointed governor of the territory of Florida. An intimacy was thus begun between the two men that in after years greatly influenced the course of at least one of them. In 1820 Mr. Polk was admitted to the bar, and established himself at Columbia, the county-seat of Maury County. Here he attained such immediate success as falls to the lot of few, his career at the bar only ending with his election to the governorship in 1839. At times he practised alone, while at others he was associated successively with several of the leading practitioners of the state. Among the latter may be mentioned Aaron V. Brown and Gideon J. Pillow.
From a photograph by Brady, Washington, D. C.
Brought up as a Jeffersonian, and early taking an interest in politics, Mr. Polk was frequently heard in public as an exponent of the views of his party. So popular was his style of oratory that his services soon came to be in great demand, and he was not long in earning the title of the “Napoleon of the Stump.” He was, however, an argumentative rather than a rhetorical speaker, and convinced his hearers by plainness of statement and aptness of illustration, ignoring the ad-captandum effects usually resorted to in political harangues. His first public employment was that of chief clerk to the Tennessee house of representatives, and in 1823 he canvassed the district to secure his own election to that body. During his two years in the legislature he was regarded as one of its most promising members. His ability and shrewdness in debate, his business tact, combined with his firmness and industry, secured for him a high reputation. While a member of the general assembly he obtained the passage of a law to prevent the then common practice of duelling, and, although he resided in a community where that mode of settling disputes was generally approved, he was never concerned in an “affair of honor,” either as principal or as second. In August, 1825, he was elected to congress from the Duck river district, in which he resided, by a flattering majority, and re-elected at every succeeding election until 1839, when he withdrew from the contest to become a candidate for governor.
On taking his seat as a member of the 19th congress, he found himself, with one or two exceptions, the youngest member of that body. The same habits of laborious application that had previously characterized him were now displayed on the floor of the house and in the committee-room. He was prominently connected with every leading question, and upon all he struck what proved to be the key-note for the action of his party. During the whole period of President Jackson's administration he was one of its leading supporters, and at times, on certain issues of paramount importance, its chief reliance. His maiden speech was made in defence of the proposed amendment to the constitution, giving the choice of president and vice-president directly to the people. It was distinguished by clearness and force, copiousness of research, wealth of illustration, and cogency of argument, and at once placed its author in the front rank of congressional debaters. During the same session Mr. Polk attracted attention by his vigorous opposition to the appropriation for the Panama mission. President Adams had appointed commissioners to attend a congress proposed to be held at Panama by delegates appointed by different Spanish-American states, which, although they had virtually achieved their independence, were still at war with the mother-country. Mr. Polk, and those who thought with him, contended that such action on the part of this government would tend to involve us in a war with Spain, and establish an unfortunate precedent for the future.
In December, 1827, he was placed on the committee on foreign affairs, and some time afterward was also appointed chairman of the select committee to which was referred that portion of the message of President Adams calling the attention of congress to the probable accumulation of a surplus in the treasury after the anticipated extinguishment of the national debt. At the head of the latter committee, he made a report denying the constitutional power of congress to collect from the people for distribution a surplus beyond the wants of the government, and maintaining that the revenue should be reduced to the requirements of the public service. Early in 1833, as a member of the ways and means committee, he made a minority report unfavorable to the Bank of the United States, which aroused a storm of opposition, a meeting of the friends of the bank being held at Nashville. During the entire contest between the bank and President Jackson, caused by the removal of the deposits in October, 1833, Mr. Polk, now chairman of the committee, supported the executive. His speech in opening the debate summarized the material facts and arguments on the Democratic side of the question. George McDuffie, leader of the opposition, bore testimony in his concluding remarks to the boldness and manliness with which Mr. Polk had assumed the only position that could be judiciously taken. Mr. Polk was elected speaker of the house of representatives in December, 1835, and held that office till 1839. He gave to the administration of Martin Van Buren the same unhesitating support he had accorded to that of President Jackson, and, though taking no part in the discussions, he approved of the leading measures recommended by the former, including the cession of the public lands to the states, the pre-emption law, and the proposal to establish an independent treasury, and exerted his influence to secure their adoption. He was the speaker during five sessions, and it was his fortune to preside over the house at a period when party feelings were excited to an unusual degree. Not withstanding the fact that during the first session more appeals were taken from his decisions than were ever known before, he was uniformly sustained by the house, and frequently by leading members of the Whig party. Although he was opposed to the doctrines of the anti-slavery reformers, we have the testimony of their leader in the house, John Quincy Adams, to the effect that Speaker Polk uniformly extended to him “every kindness and courtesy imaginable.”
On leaving congress, Mr. Polk became the candidate of the Democrats of Tennessee for governor. They had become disheartened by a series of disasters and defeats caused primarily by the defection of John Bell and Judge Hugh L. White. Under these circumstances it was evident that no one but the strongest man in the party could enter the canvass with the slightest prospect of success, and it was doubtful whether even he could carry off the prize. On being asked, Mr. Polk at once cheerfully consented to allow his name to be used. He was nominated in the autumn of 1838, but, owing to his congressional duties, was unable fairly to enter upon the canvass until the spring of 1839. His opponent was Newton Cannon, also a Democrat, who then held the office. The contest was spirited, and Mr. Polk was elected by over 2,500 majority. On October 14 he took the oath of office. In his inaugural address he touched upon the relations of the state and Federal governments, declared that the latter had no constitutional power to incorporate a national bank, took strong ground against the creation of a surplus Federal revenue by taxation, asserted that “the agitation of the Abolitionists can by no possibility produce good to any portion of the Union, but must, if persisted in, lead to incalculable mischief,” and discussed at length other topics, especially bearing upon the internal policy of Tennessee. In 1841 Mr. Polk was again a candidate for the governorship, although his defeat was a foregone conclusion in view of the political whirlwind that had swept over the country in 1840 and resulted in the election of William Henry Harrison to the presidency. In Tennessee the Harrison electoral ticket had received more than 12,000 majority. Although to overcome this was impossible, Mr. Polk entered upon the canvass with his usual energy and earnestness. He could not secure the defeat of James C. Jones, the opposing Whig candidate, one of the most popular members of his party in the state, but he did succeed in cutting down the opposition majority to about 3,000. In 1843 Mr. Polk was once more a candidate; but this time Gov. Jones's majority was nearly 4,000.
In 1839 Mr. Polk had been nominated by the legislature of Tennessee as its candidate for vice-president on the ticket with Martin Van Buren, and other states had followed the example; but Richard M. Johnson, of Kentucky, seemed to be the choice of the great body of the Democratic party, and he was accordingly nominated. From the date of Van Buren's defeat in 1840 until within a few weeks of the meeting of the National Democratic convention at Baltimore in 1844, public opinion in the party undoubtedly pointed to his renomination, but when in April of the latter year President Tyler concluded a treaty between the government of the United States and the republic of Texas, providing for the annexation of the latter to the Union, a new issue was introduced into American politics that was destined to change not only the platforms of parties, but the future history and topography of the country itself. On the question whether Texas should be admitted, the greatest divergence of opinion among public men prevailed. The Whig party at the north opposed annexation, on the grounds that it would be an act of bad faith to Mexico, that it would involve the necessity of assuming the debt of the young republic, amounting to ten or twelve millions of dollars, and that it would further increase the area of slave territory. At the south the Whigs were divided, one section advocating the new policy, while the other concurred with their party friends at the north on the first two grounds of objection. The Democrats generally favored annexation, but a portion of the party at the north, and a few of its members residing in the slave-states, opposed it. Mr. Van Buren and Mr. Clay agreed very nearly in their opinions, being in favor of annexation if the American people desired it, provided that the consent of Mexico could be obtained, or at least that efforts should be made to obtain it.
In this crisis Mr. Polk declared his views in no uncertain tones. It being understood that he would be a candidate for vice-president, a letter was addressed to him by a committee of the citizens of Cincinnati, asking for an expression of his sentiments on the subject. In his reply, dated April 22, 1844, he said: “I have no hesitation in declaring that I am in favor of the immediate reannexation of Texas to the government and territory of the United States. The proof is fair and satisfactory to my own mind that Texas once constituted a part of the territory of the United States, the title to which I regard to have been as indisputable as that to any portion of our territory.” He also added that “the country west of the Sabine, and now called Texas, was [in 1819] most unwisely ceded away”; that the people and government of the republic were most anxious for annexation, and that, if their prayer was rejected, there was danger that she might become “a dependency if not a colony of Great Britain.” This letter, strongly in contrast with the hesitating phrases contained in that of ex-President Van Buren of April 20 on the same subject, elevated its author to the presidency. When the Baltimore convention met on May 27, it was found that, while Mr. Van Buren could not secure the necessary two-thirds vote, his friends numbered more than one third of the delegates present, and were thus in a position to dictate the name of the successful candidate. As it was also found that they were inflexibly opposed to Messrs. Cass, Johnson, Buchanan, and the others whose names had been presented, Mr. Polk was introduced as the candidate of conciliation, and nominated with alacrity and unanimity. George M. Dallas was nominated for vice-president. In his letter of acceptance, Mr. Polk declared that, if elected, he should enter upon “the discharge of the high and solemn duties of the office with the settled purpose of not being a candidate for re-election.” After an exciting canvass, Mr. Polk was elected over his distinguished opponent, Henry Clay, by about 40,000 majority, on the popular vote, exclusive of that of South Carolina, whose electors were chosen by the legislature of the state; while in the electoral college he received 175 votes to 105 that were cast for Mr. Clay.
On March 4, 1845, Mr. Polk was inaugurated. In his inaugural address, after recounting the blessings conferred upon the nation by the Federal Union, he said: “To perpetuate them, it is our sacred duty to preserve it. Who shall assign limits to the achievements of free minds and free hands under the protection of this glorious Union? No treason to mankind, since the organization of society, would be equal in atrocity to that of him who would lift his hand to destroy it. He would overthrow the noblest structure of human wisdom which protects himself and his fellow-man. He would stop the progress of free government and involve his country either in anarchy or in despotism.” In selecting his cabinet, the new president was singularly fortunate. It comprised several of the most distinguished members of the Democratic party, and all sections of the Union were represented. James Buchanan, fresh from his long experience in the senate, was named secretary of state; Robert J. Walker, also an ex-senator and one of the best authorities on the national finances, was secretary of the treasury; to William L. Marcy, ex-governor of New York, was confided the war portfolio; literature was honored in the appointment of George Bancroft as secretary of the navy; Cave Johnson, a prominent son of Tennessee, was made postmaster-general; and John Y. Mason, who had been a member of President Tyler's cabinet, was first attorney-general and afterward secretary of the navy. When congress met in the following December there was a Democratic majority in both branches. In his message the president condemned all anti-slavery agitation, recommended a sub-treasury and a tariff for revenue, and declared that the annexation of Texas was a matter that concerned only the latter and the United States, no foreign country having any right to interfere. Congress was also informed that the American army under Gen. Zachary Taylor had been ordered to occupy, and had occupied, the western bank of Nueces river, beyond which Texas had never hitherto exercised jurisdiction. On December 29 Texas was admitted into the Union, and two days later an act was passed extending the United States revenue system over the doubtful territory beyond the Nueces. Even these measures did not elicit a declaration of war from the Mexican authorities, who still declared their willingness to negotiate concerning the disputed territory between the Nueces and the Rio Grande. These negotiations, however, came to nothing, and the president, in accordance with Gen. Taylor's suggestion, ordered a forward movement, in obedience to which that officer advanced from his camp at Corpus Christi toward the Rio Grande, and occupied the district in debate. Thus brought face to face with Mexican troops, he was attacked early in May with 6,000 men by Gen. Arista, who was badly beaten at Palo Alto, with less than half that number. The next day Taylor attacked Arista at Resaca de la Palma, and drove him across the Rio Grande.
[ Fac-simile of last page of letter from James Knox Polk to Mrs. Sarah C. Polk ]
On receipt of the news of these events in Washington, President Polk sent a message to congress, in which he declared that Mexican troops had at last shed the blood of American citizens on American soil, and asked for a formal declaration of war. A bill was accordingly introduced and passed by both houses, recognizing the fact that hostilities had been begun, and appropriating $10,000,000 for its prosecution. Its preamble read as follows: “Whereas, by the act of the republic of Mexico, a state of war exists between that government and the United States.” The Whigs protested against this statement as untrue, alleging that the president had provoked retaliatory action by ordering the army into Mexican territory, and Abraham Lincoln introduced in the house of representatives what became known as the “spot resolutions,” calling upon the president to designate the spot of American territory whereon the outrage had been committed. Nevertheless, the Whigs voted for the bill and generally supported the war until its conclusion. On August 8 a second message was received from the president, asking for money with which to purchase territory from Mexico, that the dispute might be settled by negotiation. A bill appropriating $2,000,000 for this purpose at once brought up the question of slavery extension into the new territory, and David Wilmot, of Pennsylvania, in behalf of many northern Democrats, offered an amendment applying to any newly acquired territory the provision of the ordinance of 1781, to the effect that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall ever exist in any part of said territory except for crime, whereof the party shall first be duly convicted.” The Whigs and northern Democrats united secured its passage, but it was sent to the senate too late to be acted upon.
During the same session war with England regarding the Oregon question seemed imminent. By the treaties of 1803 with France, and of 1819 with Spain, the United States had acquired the rights of those powers on the Pacific coast north of California. The northern boundary of the ceded territory was unsettled. The United States claimed that the line of 54º 40' north latitude was such boundary, while Great Britain maintained that it followed the Columbia river. By the convention of 1827 the disputed territory had been held jointly by both countries, the arrangement being terminable by either country on twelve months notice. The Democratic convention of 1844 had demanded the reoccupation of the whole of Oregon up to 54º 40', “with or without war with England,” a demand popularly summarized in the campaign rallying-cry of “Fifty-four-forty or fight!” The annexation of Texas having been accomplished, the Whigs now began to urge the Democrats to carry out their promise regarding Oregon, and, against the votes of the extreme southern Democrats, the president was directed to give the requisite twelve months notice. Further negotiations ensued, which resulted in the offer by Great Britain to yield her claim to the unoccupied territory between the 49th parallel and Columbia river, and acknowledged that parallel as the northern boundary. As the president had subscribed to the platform of the Baltimore convention, he threw upon the senate the responsibility of deciding whether the claim of the United States to the whole of Oregon should be insisted upon, or the compromise proposed by her majesty's government accepted. The senate, by a vote of 41 to 14, decided in favor of the latter alternative, and on June 15, 1846, the treaty was signed.
Two other important questions were acted upon at the first session of the 39th congress, the tariff and internal improvements. The former had been a leading issue in the presidential contest of 1844. The act of 1842 had violated the principles of the compromise bill of 1833, and the opinions of the two candidates for the presidency, on this issue, were supposed to be well defined previous to the termination of their congressional career. Mr. Polk was committed to the policy of a tariff for revenue, and Mr. Clay, when the compromise act was under discussion, had pledged the party favorable to protection to a reduction of the imposts to a revenue standard. Previous to his nomination, Mr. Clay made a speech at Raleigh, N. C., in which he advocated discriminating duties for the protection of domestic industry. This was followed by his letter in September, 1844, in which he gave in his adhesion to the tariff of 1842. Probably alarmed at the prospect of losing votes at the south through his opposition to the annexation of Texas, and seeing defeat certain unless he could rally to his support the people of the north, Mr. Clay made one concession after another, until he had virtually abandoned the ground he occupied in 1833, and made himself amenable to his own rebuke uttered at that time: “What man,” he had then asked, “who is entitled to deserve the character of an American statesman, would stand up in his place in either house of congress and disturb the treaty of peace and amity?”
|POLK PLACE, NASHVILLE, TENN., THE HOME AND TOMB OF JAMES K. POLK|
Mr. Polk, on the other hand, had courted criticism by his Kane letter, dated June 19, 1844, which was so ambiguously worded as to give ground for the charge that his position was identical with that held by Henry Clay. In his first annual message, however, he explained his views with precision and ability. The principles that would govern his administration were proclaimed with great boldness, and the objectionable features of the tariff of 1842 were investigated and exposed, while congress was urged to substitute ad valorem for specific and minimum duties. “The terms ‘protection to American industry,’ ” he went on to say, “are of popular import, but they should apply under a just system to all the various branches of industry in our country. The farmer, or planter, who toils yearly in his fields, is engaged in ‘domestic industry,’ and is as much entitled to have his labor protected as the manufacturer, the man of commerce, the navigator, or the mechanic, who are engaged also in ‘domestic industry’ in their different pursuits. The joint labors of all these classes constitute the aggregate of the domestic industry of the nation, and they are equally entitled to the nation's ‘protection.’ No one of them can justly claim to be the exclusive recipients of ‘protection,’ which can only be afforded by increasing burdens on the ‘domestic industry’ of others.” In accordance with the president's views, a bill providing for a purely revenue tariff, and based on a plan prepared by Sec. Walker, was introduced in the house of representatives on June 15. After an unusually able discussion, a vote was reached on July 3, when the measure was adopted by 114 ayes to 95 nays. But it was nearly defeated in the senate, where the vote was tied, and only the decision of Vice-President Dallas in its favor saved the bill. The occasion was memorable, party spirit ran high, and a crowded senate-chamber hung on the lips of that official as he announced the reasons for his course. In conclusion he said: “If by thus acting it be my misfortune to offend any portion of those who honored me with their suffrages, I have only to say to them, and to my whole country, that I prefer the deepest obscurity of private life, with an unwounded , to the glare of official eminence spotted by a sense of moral delinquency!”
Regarding the question of internal improvements, Mr. Folk's administration was signalized by the struggle between the advocates of that policy and the executive. A large majority in both houses of congress, including members of both parties, were in favor of a lavish expenditure of the public money. On July 24, 1846, the senate passed the bill known as the river-and-harbor improvement bill precisely as it had passed the house the previous March, but it was vetoed by the president in a message of unusual power. The authority of the general government to make internal improvements within the states was thoroughly examined, and reference was made to the corruptions of the system that expended money in particular sections, leaving other parts of the country with out government assistance. Undaunted by the opposition of the executive, the house of representatives, on February 20, 1847, passed, by a vote of 89 to 72, a second bill making appropriations amounting to $600,000 for the same purpose. It was carried through the senate on the last day of the second session. Although the president could have defeated the objectionable measure by a “pocket veto,” in spite of the denunciations with which he was assailed by the politicians and the press, he again boldly met the question, and sent in a message that, for thoroughness of investigation, breadth of thought, clearness and cogency of argument, far excels any of the state papers to which he has put his name.
The conflict between the friends and opponents of slavery was also a prominent feature of President Folk's administration, and was being constantly waged on the floor of congress. During the second session of the 39th congress the house attached the Wilmot proviso to a bill appropriating $3,000,000 for the purchase of territory from Mexico, as it had been appended to one appropriating $2,000,000 for the same purpose at the previous session. The senate passed the bill without the amendment, and the house was compelled to concur. A bill to organize the territory of Oregon, with the proviso attached, passed by the latter body, was not acted upon by the senate. A motion made in the house of representatives by a southern member to extend the Missouri compromise line of 36º 30' to the Pacific was lost by a sectional vote, north against south, 81 to 104. A treaty of peace having been signed with Mexico, February 2, 1848, after a series of victories, a bill was passed by the senate during the first session of the 30th congress, establishing territorial governments in Oregon, New Mexico, and California, with a provision that all questions concerning slavery in those territories should be referred to the U. S. supreme court for decision. It received the votes of the members from the slave-states, but was lost in the house. A bill was finally passed organizing the territory of Oregon without slavery. During the second session a bill to organize the territories of New Mexico and California with the Wilmot proviso was passed by the house, but the senate refused to consider it. Late in the session the latter body attached a bill permitting such organization with slavery to the general appropriation bill as a “rider,” but, as the house objected, was compelled to strike it off. In his message to congress approving the Oregon territorial bill Mr. Polk said: “I have an abiding confidence that the sober reflection and sound patriotism of all the states will bring them to the conclusion that the dictate of wisdom is to follow the example of those who have gone before us, and settle this dangerous question on the Missouri compromise or some other equitable compromise which would respect the rights of all, and prove satisfactory to the different portions of the Union.” President Polk was not a slavery propagandist, and consequently had no pro-slavery policy. On the contrary, in the settlement of the Oregon question, he did all in his power to secure the exclusion of slavery from that territory, and, although the final vote was not taken until within a few days after his retirement, the battle was fought and the decision virtually reached during his able administration.
Mr. Polk, in a letter dated May 19, 1848, reiterated his decision not to become a candidate again for the presidency, and retired at the close of his term of office to his home in Nashville with the intention not to re-enter public life. His health, never robust, had been seriously impaired by the unavoidable cares of office and his habit of devoting too much time and strength to the execution of details. Within a few weeks after his permanent return to Tennessee he fell a prey to a disease that would probably have only slightly affected a man in ordinary health, and a few hours sufficed to bring the attack to a fatal termination. Thus ended the life of one of whose public career it may still be too soon to judge with entire impartiality. Some of the questions on which he was called upon to act have remained for half a century after his death party issues. Polk evidently believed with Mr. Clay that a Union all slave or all free was an impossible Utopia, and that there was no good reason why the north and the south should not continue to live for many years to come as they had lived since the adoption of the constitution. He deprecated agitation of the slavery question by the Abolitionists, and believed that the safety of the commonwealth lay in respecting the compromises that had hitherto furnished a modus vivendi between the slave and the free states. As to the annexation of Texas and the war with Mexico, his policy was undoubtedly the result of conviction, sincerity, and good faith. He believed, with John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, that Texas had been unwisely ceded to Spain in 1819, and that it was desirable, from a geographical point of view, that it should be re-annexed, seeing that it formed a most valuable part of the valley of the Mississippi. He was also of opinion that in a military point of view its acquisition was desirable for the protection of New Orleans, the great commercial mart of the southwestern section of the Union, which in time of war would be endangered by the close proximity of a hostile power having control of the upper waters of Red river. Holding these views and having been elevated to the presidency on a platform that expressly demanded that they should be embodied in action, and Texas again made a part of the national domain, he would have indeed been recreant to his trust had he attempted to carry out as president any policy antagonistic to that he had advocated when a candidate for that office. The war in which he became involved in carrying out these views was a detail that the nation was compelled to leave largely to his judgment. The president believed that the representations and promises of the Mexican authorities could not be trusted, and that the only argument to which they would pay attention was that of force. Regarding his famous order to Gen. Taylor to march toward the Rio Grande, it was suggested by that officer himself, and for his gallant action in the war the latter was elected the successor of President Polk. The settlement of the Oregon boundary-line was made equally obligatory upon the new president on taking office. He offered Great Britain the line that was finally accepted; but when the British minister hastily rejected the offer, the entire country applauded his suggestion to that power of what the boundary might possibly be in case of war.
But whatever the motives of the executive as to Texas and Oregon, the results of the administration of James K. Polk were brilliant in the extreme. He was loyally upheld by the votes of all parties in congress, abundantly supplied with the sinews of war, and seconded by gallant and competent officers in the field. For $15,000,000 in addition to the direct war tax expenses, the south western boundary of the country was carried to the Rio Grande, while the provinces of New Mexico and Upper California were added to the national domain. What that cession meant in increased wealth it is perhaps even yet too soon to compute. Among the less dazzling but still solid advantages conferred upon the nation during Mr. Polk's term of office was the adoption by congress, on his recommendation, of the public warehousing system that has since proved so valuable an aid to the commerce of the country; the negotiation of the 35th article of the treaty with Grenada, ratified June 10, 1848, which secured for our citizens the right of way across the Isthmus of Panama; the postal treaty of December 15, 1848, with Great Britain, and the negotiations of commercial treaties with the secondary states of the Germanic confederation by which reciprocal relations were established and growing markets reached upon favorable terms.
Mr. George Bancroft, the last surviving member of Polk's cabinet, who carefully revised and enlarged this biography, in a communication to the editor, dated Washington, March 8, 1888, says: “One of the special qualities of Mr. Polk's mind was his clear perception of the character and doctrines of the two great parties that then divided the country. Of all our public men — I say, distinctly, of all — Polk was the most thoroughly consistent representative of his party. He had no equal. Time and again his enemies sought for grounds on which to convict him of inconsistency, but so consistent had been his public career that the charge was never even made. Never fanciful or extreme, he was ever solid, firm, and consistent. His administration, viewed from the standpoint of results, was perhaps the greatest in our national history, certainly one of the greatest. He succeeded because he insisted on being its centre, and in overruling and guiding all his secretaries to act so as to produce unity and harmony. Those who study his administration will acknowledge how sincere and successful were his efforts, as did those who were contemporary with him.”
Mr. Polk, who was a patient student and a clear thinker, steadfast to opinions once formed, and not easily moved by popular opinion, labored faithfully, from his entrance into public life until the day when he left the White House, to disseminate the political opinions in which he had been educated, and which commended themselves to his judgment. His private life was upright and blameless. Simple in his habits to abstemiousness, he found his greatest happiness in the pleasures of the home circle rather than in the gay round of public amusements. A frank and sincere friend, courteous and affable in his demeanor with strangers, generous and benevolent, the esteem in which he was held as a man and a citizen was quite as high as his official reputation. In the words of his friend and associate in office, Vice-President Dallas, he was “temperate but not unsocial, industrious but accessible, punctual but patient, moral without austerity, and devotional though not bigoted.” See “Eulogy on the Life and Character of the Late James K. Polk,” by George M. Dallas (Philadelphia, 1849); “Eulogy on the Life and Character of James Knox Polk,” by A. O. P. Nicholson (Nashville, 1849); “James K. Polk,” by John S. Jenkins (Buffalo, 1850); “History of the Administration of James K. Polk,” by Lucien B. Chase (New York, 1850); “Diary of James K. Polk During His Presidency, 1845 to 1849,” edited by Milo M. Quaife, 4 vols. (Chicago, 1910); and Bancroft's large MSS. collection of Polk's letters and extracts from his diary, extending to twenty-two quarto volumes, now in the possession of the New York Public Library. Referring to these type-written copies, made for him in 1887 with a view to the preparation of the president's life, Mr. Bancroft wrote to a friend: “His character shines out in them just exactly as the man was, prudent, farsighted, bold, exceeding any Democrat of his day in his undeviatingly correct exposition of democratic principles; and, in short, as I think, judging of him as I knew him, and judging of him by the results of his administration, one of the very foremost of our public men, and one of the very best, most honest, and most successful presidents the country ever had.”
His wife, Sarah Childress, born near Murfreesboro, Rutherford County, Tenn., September 4, 1803; died in Nashville, Tenn., August 14, 1891, was the daughter of Joel and Elizabeth Childress. Her father, a farmer in easy circumstances, sent her to the Moravian institute at Salem, N. C., where she was educated. On returning home, she married Mr. Polk, who was then a member of the legislature of Tennessee. The following year he was elected to congress, and during his fourteen sessions in Washington Mrs. Polk's courteous manners, sound judgment, and many attainments gave her a high place in society. On her return as the wife of the president, having no children, Mrs. Polk devoted herself entirely to her duties as mistress of the White House. She held weekly receptions, and abolished the custom of giving refreshments to the guests. She also forbade dancing, as out of keeping with the character of these entertainments. In spite of her reforms, Mrs. Polk was extremely popular. “Madam,” said a prominent South Carolinian, at one of her receptions, “there is a woe pronounced against you in the Bible.” On her inquiring his meaning, he added: “The Bible says, ‘Woe unto you when all men shall speak well of you.’ ” An English lady visiting Washington thus described the president's wife: “Mrs. Polk is a very handsome woman. Her hair is very black, and her dark eyes and complexion remind one of the Spanish donnas. She is well read, has much talent for conversation, and is highly popular. Her excellent taste in dress preserves the subdued though elegant costume that characterizes the lady.” Mrs. Polk became a communicant of the Presbyterian church in 1834, and maintained her connection with that denomination until the close of her long life. After the death of her husband she continued to reside at Nashville, in the house known as “Polk Place.” In the foreground is the tomb of her husband, by whose side she was buried. The courts, in 1891, having decided that Mr. Polk's will, leaving his estate “to the worthiest of the name forever,” was void, as constituting a perpetuity, the tomb, with the remains of President and Mrs. Polk, were removed by the State and reinterred with appropriate public ceremonies on Capitol Hill, Nashville, September 19, 1893, with a view to the division of the land among the heirs.