Back To CourseHigh School US History: Help and Review
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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.
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.
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.
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.
Polk's greatest impact was on land acquisition for the country. Thirty years before Polk took office, an agreement on the Oregon Territory (which is modern day Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and parts of Montana and Wyoming) was struck between the U.S. and Great Britain where both countries would govern the land. Polk wanted full possession of the land, and worked to see it happen. A new deal was struck so that the Americans got most of the territory, with the dividing line being the 49th parallel. This established a new northern border for the United States. This new territory was brought in as free land without slavery.
Texas had been accepted into the Union by Congress just before Polk took office. This greatly angered Mexico, which had formerly owned Texas until the new republic gained its independence in the 1830s. With escalating tensions between the two nations, Polk sent U.S. troops to the Mexico border with Texas. Conflict soon erupted, and Polk asked Congress to declare war on Mexico, which it did for only the second time in U.S. history. After two years of conflict, the United States defeated Mexico in the Mexican-American War, losing nearly 17,000 soldiers to battlefield death and disease in the process. The reward for this conflict was territory gained through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which brought in California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and part of Colorado to the growing United States.
Polk was true to his word to only serve one term in office. Shortly after leaving the presidency, he became ill and died in June 1849. Polk was only 53 years old when he died and had only been out of office for a few months. He did not live long enough to see the effect his policies would have on the nation. Polk had led the nation to war with Mexico and gained enormous amounts of new land. That new land would lead to renewed fights over slavery and its expansion, which eventually fueled the sectional fires that would lead to Civil War ten years later.
James K. Polk, the eleventh president of the United States, was arguably one of the most successful presidents in American history. Starting as a lawyer, then state senator and governor of Tennessee, and then congressperson where he became Speaker of the House of Representatives, one of the highest positions in the U.S. government, he developed a close relationship with President Andrew Jackson. He seemed to be destined for the Oval Office, despite his early struggles with groups like the Whig Party, a rising political organization and eventual party at that time.
When Polk ran for office in 1844 as a Democrat, he had four campaign goals: to establish the northern border of the United States in the Oregon Territory (which is modern day Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and parts of Montana and Wyoming), to lower tariff rates, to acquire territory in California and modern day New Mexico from Mexico (which he did in signing the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which brought in California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and part of Colorado to the growing nation), and to work to rebuild a national treasury system. Polk accomplished these goals, and he also fulfilled his pledge to serve one term. While the merits of these actions can be debated, Polk was the rare president who kept his word when he was in office.
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Back To CourseHigh School US History: Help and Review
25 chapters | 307 lessons
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