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President James K. Polk's Accomplishments in the Lower 48 States

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  • 0:05 The Election of 1844
  • 1:49 Southwest and Northwest
  • 3:20 The Mexican-American War
  • 5:04 Polk's Other Accomplishments
  • 6:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

President James Polk may be obscure, but he wasn't insignificant. Learn about his controversial territorial acquisitions that define most of what Americans today call the 'Lower 48' states.

The Election of 1844

James Polk defeated Henry Clay in the 1844 election
1844 Election Clay vs Polk

In 1844, incumbent President John Tyler knew he had pretty much no hope of winning re-election. The two front-runners were Henry Clay (for the Whigs) and Martin Van Buren (for the Democrats), and neither of them were interested in Texas, which would mean Tyler's dream of seeing the republic annexed into the U.S. as slave territory would end with his term. But the American people were interested in Texas, and in a final show of strength, President Tyler organized a third party, drawing enough attention to the issue to force the Democrats to nominate James Polk instead of Van Buren.

A lot of Americans didn't know who Polk was outside of his home state of Tennessee, but he successfully linked Texas (which Southerners wanted) to Oregon (which Northerners wanted). And, he promised fellow Democrats that he would only serve one term, winning over former Van Buren supporters. The Democrats and their so-called 'dark-horse' candidate won the election. At the time, Polk was the youngest president ever elected at age 49. A lot of students today still say they don't know who Polk is, even though he proved to be an effective leader and accomplished most of his objectives within his promised four years.

Following Polk's election in 1844, the lame-duck President Tyler had the required support to finally pass a joint resolution in Congress annexing Texas. Tyler signed the legislation days before leaving office, even though Polk's election is often credited with making it happen. However, Mexico had never even recognized Texas independence and threatened war if the U.S. annexed Texas. By the time Polk was inaugurated, diplomatic relations with Mexico had been severed.

Southwest and Northwest

The U.S. and Britain fought for years over the Oregon Territory boundary
James Polk Oregon Territory Map

President Polk and others were concerned that Mexico might be planning to sell land to Britain to help them pay debts and separate their border from the U.S. Hoping to interrupt any such deal, Polk sent Congressman John Slidell to buy California and New Mexico from them - which represented about half of Mexico's remaining territory. At first, the Mexicans had believed Slidell was there to discuss the Texas situation. When they found out what he was really up to, Slidell was sent packing. President Polk responded by sending U.S. troops into disputed territory between Texas and Mexico in 1846. A month later, America was at war.

Unfortunately for Polk, his aggressive pursuit of 'all Oregon' during his election campaign had also put the U.S. on the brink of war with Britain. For nearly two decades, the two nations had argued about the boundary of the jointly-occupied Oregon Territory. President James Polk wanted all of Oregon, and he was not interested in a compromise with Britain. 'The only way to deal with John Bull,' he said, 'is to look him straight in the eye.' A public relations campaign endorsed the slogan '54 - 40 or Fight!' suggesting that America go to war to get all of the Oregon Territory. But Polk didn't really want war with Mexico and Great Britain at the same time, so he diplomatically secured the modern U.S./Canadian border at the 49th parallel in 1846. It wasn't 'all Oregon,' but he didn't have to fight for it or pay for it.

Mexican-American War

Meanwhile, the unpopular Mexican-American War raged. But true to his campaign promise, President Polk wrapped up this business before leaving office. In the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the United States won the right to 'buy' all of California, New Mexico and the disputed Texas border - an area covering all or part of seven current states - for $15 million. As you can see from the map, the territory included everything now considered the 'Lower 48' states (aside from a small strip of land on the southern border of Arizona and New Mexico). Within three years of taking office, President Polk had achieved America's Manifest Destiny.

And though most Whigs had opposed the war as an unjust means of gaining territory, its successful completion caused a surge in nationalism. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough to override the divisive effects of the debate over slavery in the new land. The growing abolitionist movement was absolutely convinced that President Polk and the so-called 'Slave Power' were plotting to take over the nation. To be fair, he did own slaves his entire life, but just like George Washington, he had indicated in his will that all of his slaves be freed upon his wife's death.

U.S. land acquired through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo
Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo

During Polk's early days in office, thousands of 'Latter-Day Saints' (commonly called Mormons) left their homes in Illinois because of conflict with non-Mormon residents there. These pilgrims intended to leave the United States and settle in the wilderness to live out their beliefs in peace. They ended up in Utah - which, by the time they arrived, had been acquired by the U.S. in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Their handcarts and wagon trains have become iconic images of the American west.

Polk's Other Accomplishments

In addition to territorial expansion, President Polk was also successful at achieving several of his financial goals for the nation. He changed the banking system (again) and lowered taxes with the Walker Tariff. His goal was revenue only, and not protection for manufacturing, which he felt was an unnecessary federal intrusion into the economy. Of course, Northern industrialists felt he was only protecting the South and slave power at their expense.

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