Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Life Before the Presidency

James K. Polk's Scots-Irish ancestors settled in the United States in the 1720s, first in Pennsylvania, and then moving to North Carolina and finally to Tennessee. Both his grandfathers had fought in the Revolutionary War. Born in 1795, James lived the first ten years of his life in rural North Carolina. Then the family followed James's grandfather to frontier Tennessee, a difficult journey of nearly five hundred miles by wagon, to carve farms and plantations out of the wilderness. James's father, Samuel Polk, prospered in Tennessee, owning thousands of acres of land and more than fifty slaves at his death in 1827. His success in farming enabled him to dabble in local politics, and he actively supported fellow Tennessean Andrew Jackson's presidential campaign in 1824.

The eldest of ten children, James lived in a tidy and well-organized household supervised by a stern mother, Jane Knox Polk, who believed in raising her children according to the strict Presbyterian "gospel of duty." But he was not a healthy child. The trip west had taken its toll on him, and James suffered most of his youth from one sickness or another, especially gallstones. This, along with his staunch Calvinist upbringing and education in Presbyterian schools, accounts for James's determined and even unhealthy work ethic. He seemed to work and study as hard as possible to make up for his real or imagined physical defects.

Political Stepping Stones

Although not formally educated until he enrolled at a Presbyterian school outside of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Polk was quite advanced in reading, writing, and arithmetic because his mother and several hired teachers had tutored him at home. He eventually entered the University of North Carolina as a sophomore in 1816, graduating with honors in 1818. He then studied law under Felix Grundy, a prominent lawyer in Nashville who later became a U.S. senator and attorney general in the Martin Van Buren administration. Polk passed the state bar exam in 1820. While working on his legal studies, he secured a job as clerk of the state senate—the bureaucratic post responsible for directing the flow of legislative paperwork. It was a wise move for the young man, who by then had decided to use the law and his statehouse connections as stepping stones to a political career.

In 1823, his hard work on behalf of county Jeffersonian-Republicans (also known as Democratic-Republicans) paid off with his successful bid to become a member of the Tennessee House of Representatives. In the House, where he served for two years, Polk operated as the chief legislative lieutenant of Tennessee Governor William Carrolls. In 1825, Polk won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives from Tennessee's Sixth District, a victory that he repeated six more times. In 1835, largely due to the support of President Andrew Jackson, Polk was elected Speaker of the House, a position he held until 1839.

As Polk had served Governor Carrolls in Tennessee, so too did he become Andrew Jackson's strongest supporter in the House during Jackson's presidency. Polk championed every measure identified with the President: his fight to kill the Second Bank of the United States, including his transfer of federal deposits into favored "pet banks;" his opposition to internal improvements funded at federal expense; and his militant posture against South Carolina during the nullification crisis. Whatever Jackson supported, Polk also supported. This loyalty to Jackson won the President's loyalty in return, and Jackson treated Polk almost like the son he never had. Polk's colleagues, partly in jest, labeled him, "Young Hickory."

Polk left the House in 1839 for the Tennessee governorship, where he attempted to introduce banking reforms. The times were difficult ones in the nation and in the state, however, as the economic collapse of the late 1830s—caused in part by Jackson's banking and monetary policies—reverberated into the early 1840s with bankruptcies, farm foreclosures, and tight credit. A newly invigorated Whig Party rightly heaped much of the blame on the party of Jackson and Polk. Consequently, in 1841 Polk lost his bid for reelection, and in 1843 he waged another losing gubernatorial campaign. Out of office and twice defeated, Polk turned his attention to his plantations, waiting for the right opportunity to get back into politics but unsure when, if ever, he might get the chance to do so.

A Political Partner

Polk found support for his political career from his wife, Sarah Childress, the Tennessean whom he had married in 1824. At the time of their wedding, she was a twenty-year-old who brought substantial family wealth into the Polk household. A well-educated woman for her time, Sarah had attended the prestigious Moravian Female Academy at Salem, North Carolina. James and Sarah met while both were taking lessons—as was the custom in those days for the sons and daughters of prosperous planters—from a private tutor in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. She was only twelve at the time. As Congressman Polk's wife, and later as the first lady of Tennessee, Sarah Polk threw herself into hosting social affairs to benefit her husband's career, exhibiting a lively and intelligent charm as an informed conversationalist. In her social graces, she was almost the exact opposite of her husband, who avoided small talk and had to force himself to mingle with guests at Sarah's many social events.