James Polk was born on November 2, 1795, in Pineville, North Carolina. At the age of eleven, Polk moved with his family to central Tennessee. He returned to North Carolina to attend college at the University of North Carolina. Upon graduating, Polk studied law and eventually opened his own practice in Columbia, Tennessee. In 1822, voters elected him to the Tennessee legislature, the first of numerous political offices that Polk would hold.
In 1825, Tennessee voters elected Polk to the United States House of Representatives. Polk was a supporter of Andrew Jackson for the presidency in 1824, 1828, and 1832 and became a staunch supporter of the Democratic Party and its platform. Polk became one of President Jackson's strongest supporters in the House of Representatives during his presidency (1829 to 1837). Polk supported agrarian issues over industrialization and supported Jackson's efforts to destroy the Bank of the United States. In 1835, Polk became the Speaker of the House of Representatives, holding the position until retiring from Congress during the Panic of 1837.
Upon stepping down as Speaker of the House of Representatives, Polk successfully ran for governor of Tennessee. In the election of 1844, the Democratic Party selected Polk as its presidential candidate. Polk won election in one of the closest presidential elections in United States history. In this election, Polk faced James Birney, a former Ohioan who ran for the Liberty Party, and Henry Clay, the Whig Party's candidate. Birney received approximately sixty-two thousand votes out of more than 2.5 million votes cast. Birney's candidacy, however, probably won the election for Polk and cost the election for Clay. The Liberty Party consisted primarily of Northern abolitionists who tended to favor the Whig Party over the Democratic Party. If the Liberty Party did not run a candidate, the sixty-two thousand people who voted for Birney probably would have most-likely voted for Clay instead. Clay lost the election by fewer than thirty-eight thousand votes.
As president, Polk concentrated his efforts on expanding the United States. He first focused his attention on the Oregon Territory. During the presidential election of 1844, Polk's campaign slogan was "54 40 or Fight!" At that time, the United States and Great Britain jointly occupied the Oregon Territory. Polk's slogan referred to the northern boundary of the territory. Polk claimed that the United States would control the entire Oregon Territory without Great Britain's input or that Americans would fight. Polk did not fulfill his campaign promise. In 1846, he agreed with the British to establish the United States-Canadian border at the forty-ninth parallel. In essence, this treaty divided the Oregon Territory roughly in half.
Polk also sought to expand the United States' borders in a southwesterly direction. In 1845, President John Tyler, shortly before relinquishing his office to Polk, formally annexed Texas, believing that Polk would do so as soon as he assumed office. As soon as Tyler annexed Texas, Mexico broke off diplomatic relations with the United States. The two nations became embroiled in a border dispute. The United States claimed that the Texas-Mexico border was the Rio Grande, while Mexico contended that the correct border was the more northerly Nueces River. Upon taking office, Polk immediately dispatched Zachary Taylor with 3,500 soldiers to the Nueces River to defend the United States' land claims. At the same time, Polk also dispatched John Slidell to offer thirty million dollars to the Mexican government for the New Mexico Territory, California, and to establish the border of Texas at the Rio Grande. The Mexican government refused to meet with Slidell, and in January 1836, an infuriated Polk ordered Taylor's army to advance to the Rio Grande. In April, Mexican forces attacked Taylor's army. Polk went before Congress and asked for a declaration of war for Mexico's supposedly unwarranted aggression. The Congress agreed, formally declaring war on May 13, 1846.
Polk immediately ordered Zachary Taylor to advance into northern Mexico. In September, Taylor's army captured the city of Monterrey. Stephen Kearney and a force of nine hundred men secured New Mexico. Kearney’s army then advanced on California and, with the assistance of John Fremont and a group of Americans already residing there, secured California for the United States. Despite these setbacks, the Mexican government refused to surrender. In 1847, Polk sent Winfield Scott and an army of twelve thousand men to capture Veracruz. Scott's forces then advanced upon Mexico City, capturing Mexico's capital city in September 1847. The Mexican government now had no choice but to surrender. On February 2, 1848, Mexico and the United States signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Mexico acknowledged the Rio Grande as the border between Mexico and Texas. It also ceded New Mexico and California to the United States. In return, the United States paid Mexico fifteen million dollars and assumed approximately two million dollars in claims that American citizens had filed against the Mexican government and businesses.
In Ohio, as in most other Northern states, strong opposition existed against the Mexican-American War. Many Northern Whig and Liberty Party members feared that Polk only sought Mexican territory to extend slavery. Most abolitionists opposed the war and slavery on moral grounds, while other Northerners did not want to compete with Southern slaveholders in any territory acquired from Mexico. In 1846, David Wilmot, a member of the Democratic Party and the United States House of Representatives from Pennsylvania, proposed the Wilmot Proviso. The Wilmot Proviso would have prevented slavery's expansion into any of this new territory. The House of Representatives approved the proviso on August 8, 1846, but the Senate adjourned before it could debate the bill. The House adopted the proviso again in its next session. On February 1, 1847, the Senate rejected the proviso. As a result, the proviso never went into effect.
The proviso passed the House of Representatives because a majority of the representatives came from the North. Under the United States Constitution, each state received a number of representatives based on a state's population. At the time, the North had more people residing in it than the South did. However, there were the same number of slave and free states. In the Senate, each state was entitled to two senators. As a result, when the Northern and Southern senators voted along regional lines, a bill could not be approved. During this time period, Northern and Southern states intentionally tried to maintain the balance between slave and free states. As long as neither side had an advantage in the Senate, a bill could not be sent to the president to sign into law that could either end slavery or make it legal everywhere.
The Wilmot Proviso helped to further divide the North and the South over slavery. Many white Southerners believed that slavery should be legal everywhere in the United States, while a growing number of white Northerners, including many Ohioans, opposed slavery's expansion. The Wilmot Proviso espoused the philosophy of the Free Soil Party, and eventually the Republican Party, that slavery could not expand.
In 1848, Polk decided not to seek reelection. He had fulfilled his primary goal of expanding the United States' borders. He retired to Tennessee at the end of his term in March 1849. Unfortunately for Polk, he contracted cholera and died on June 15, 1849.
- James Birney
- Henry Clay
- Andrew Jackson
- Mexican War
- Panic of 1837
- Bouquet's Expedition
- Democratic Party
- Free Soil Party
- Liberty Party
- Whig Party
- Theodore Burton
- Early Industrialization
- Bank of the United States
- Wilmot Proviso
- United States Constitution
- Republican Party
- Fremont, Ohio
- Zachary Taylor