James K. Polk's Inaugural Address: Summary & Meaning

Instructor: Evan Thompson

Evan has taught high school History and has a bachelor's degree in history with a master's degree in teaching.

The inaugural address of President James K. Polk stated all of his administration's goals and gave philosophical support for each. What were his goals? Why did he feel that they were important? This lesson answers these questions.

James K. Polk's Inaugural Address: An Overview

At age 49, James K. Polk was the youngest person elected to the presidency at the time and this young man had big ambitions for his presidency. It may surprise some of us today that he actually accomplished his goals with the support of Congress in one four-year term.

Polk was inaugurated as the 11th President of the United States on Tuesday, March 4, 1845. His inaugural address outlined his views on the issues that his presidency ended up addressing. Let's take a look at the main themes of the speech.

  • Benefits of the Federal System of government and the concept of state sovereignty
  • Fairness in Federal fiscal policy, opposition to a national debt and fairness in Federal tariff rates
  • Support for Manifest Destiny to expand U.S. borders all the way to the Pacific Ocean
  • Establishment of an Independent Treasury System
  • Emphasis on his role to be president of all, not just his supporters

Daguerrotype of President James K. Polk
Daguerrotype of President James K. Polk

Analysis of Polk's Inaugural Address

Let's take a closer look at the major themes of Polk's address.

The Federal System

The scope of Federal and State government responsibility is an issue that has been argued since the birth of our nation, and it is still hotly debated today. Polk spoke highly of the Federal System of dual sovereignty by quoting the Tenth Amendment. He said that each State was completely sovereign within the 'sphere of its reserved powers' -- powers that the States kept for themselves. In his next sentence, he stated that the Federal Government -- which he referred to as the General Government -- was completely sovereign within the context of delegated powers that the States granted to the Federal Government.

The Federal Government, however, did 'not force reform on the States,' but left it up to the States to decide what paths they would take to make changes that they felt were necessary. Polk then highlighted the successes of the Federal System over the previous 56 years, and concluded with a prophetic statement that if the abolition of slavery were to be forced upon the Southern States at the Federal level, 'the dissolution of the Union and the consequent destruction of our happy form of government must speedily follow.'

Fiscal Policy

Polk introduced his philosophy on fiscal policy by stating that laws passed at the Federal level should not favor one section of the country at expense of another or one industry at the expense of another. He began by stating that the country did not need a national bank, since it could be abused by some to gain tremendous power. Polk was staunchly opposed to carrying a national debt, and he wanted the current one to be paid off quickly.

Next, Polk moved on to that ever-popular topic, taxes, or tariff rates, which were taxes on imported goods. At the time, the tariff was the only Federal tax, and it was used to raise all revenue for the Federal government. He built on his earlier theme of avoiding laws that favor one section of the country over the other or one industry over the other. The industrial Northeast favored a higher tariff rate, since it made foreign goods more expensive. As a result, the industries could charge more for their products than they otherwise would have. The agricultural Southeast and Midwest, however, favored a lower tariff, because they benefited greatly from free trade. Pointing out the relationship between tariff rates in the US and those charged by foreign countries, Polk stated his support for a lower tariff to raise only needed revenue for the government, with protecting home industries being a side effect. Doing the reverse 'would be to inflict manifest injustice upon all other than the protected interests.' He also said that taxing luxury items at a lower rate than common or necessary items would be unfair to anyone who is not rich.

Expansion

Polk ran on the platform of Manifest Destiny -- the belief that it was God's will for the US to span from the Atlantic all the way to the Pacific. Consequently, that meant that he was in favor of annexing Texas, Oregon (in whole or in part), California and New Mexico. He began by affirming his support of the annexation of Texas -- which, unknown to him, had been approved by Congress the day before his inauguration.

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