James K. Polk: Presidency, Facts & Accomplishments

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  • 0:00 Brief Biography of James Polk
  • 1:05 James Polk's Politics
  • 2:10 The 1844 Campaign
  • 3:25 Presidency of James Polk
  • 5:38 Post-Presidency and Legacy
  • 6:13 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Daniel Vermilya
James K. Polk was the eleventh president of the United States, serving four years from 1845 to 1849. He led the nation to war with Mexico and acquired large amounts of territory during his term in office. Learn more about James Polk in this lesson.

Brief Biography of James Polk

Of the presidents who led the United States during the mid-19th century, few were more important than James K. Polk. The eleventh President of the United States, Polk led the nation to war with Mexico, he brought Texas into the Union, and his actions had a big impact on the future of the United States. Let's learn more about this important president.

Polk was born in 1795 in North Carolina, which gave him strong southern roots. His family owned slaves, and his father was a farmer. While he was still young, Polk's family moved to middle Tennessee. He attended several schools before attending the University of North Carolina.

With his college education complete, Polk returned to Tennessee and became a lawyer, a career path which led him to a life in politics. James Polk won his first election when he became the clerk for the Tennessee Senate in 1819. Soon after he became active in local militia groups, gaining the rank of captain. He married Sarah Childress in 1824, and the next year he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

James Polk's Politics

Polk's election to the House of Representatives put him on the map. Over the next several years, he became a rising figure in the Democratic Party, corresponding with President Andrew Jackson during his presidential campaigns. In 1835, during the final years of the Jackson presidency, Polk became the Speaker of the House of Representatives, one of the highest positions in the U.S. government. Polk pursued policies that maintained Jackson's strict insistence on the use of gold and silver in banking. He also supported a gag rule on discussing slavery petitions in the house, a major sign of the divisiveness of slavery at that time.

Because of his work in Congress, Polk became a leading politician from and within Tennessee. In 1839, he became the Governor of Tennessee, moving back to his home state. He struggled with the Whig Party, a rising political organization and eventual party at that time, which fought against Polk's policy initiatives. Polk lost his reelection in 1841, and was defeated again in 1843 when he tried to reclaim his position. This meant that he was free from office for the 1844 presidential election.

The 1844 Campaign

Going into the 1844 presidential election, there was no clear cut favorite in the Democratic Party for the nomination. Former President Martin Van Buren was a favorite of many, but Van Buren did not favor bringing the new Republic of Texas into the Union. Many other Democrats did favor this, providing strong political head winds for Van Buren's candidacy. At the party's nomination convention that year, Van Buren failed to get the majority necessary to win the nomination outright, so several rounds of balloting began. With each round, Van Buren's support eroded. Because of his prominent standing during the prior years as Speaker of the House and Governor of Tennessee, many turned to Polk, who won the nomination after 8 ballots.

Polk ran against Whig candidate Henry Clay, who was one of the most famous Senators of the 19th century. Polk ran with four main goals: he wanted to gain land in modern day California and New Mexico, establish the northern boundary of the U.S. in the Oregon Territory dispute with Great Britain, lower tariffs, and deal with the nation's treasury system. He also pledged to only serve one term in office. With his running mate George Dallas, Polk garnered enough support to win the presidency in 1844. He quickly went to work.

Presidency of James Polk

Polk's time in office saw lots of action on many different issues. In domestic policy, he was able to see lower tariff rates pushed through Congress, a goal which many in the South strongly favored. He also reestablished an independent treasury system, giving the government a central place to keep money. Previously this had been done in private or state banks. Polk also established the Department of the Interior during his time in office.

In regards to slavery, the preeminent issue of the 19th century, Polk was hated by many abolitionists as a pro-slavery politician. Yet, he tried to walk a fine line on this issue. Polk owned and held slaves, yet he doubted the ability of slavery to successfully expand into new Western territories.

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