A Reference Resource
James Knox Polk
Under James Knox Polk, the United States grew by more than a million square miles, adding territory that now composes the states of Arizona, Utah, Nevada, California, Oregon, Idaho, Washington, much of New Mexico, and portions of Wyoming, Montana, and Colorado. More than any other President, Polk pursued "Manifest Destiny," a phrase coined by his fellow Jacksonian Democrat, John L. O'Sullivan, to express the conviction that Providence had foreordained the United States to spread its republican institutions across North America. He accomplished every major goal that he set for himself as President and in the process successfully waged war against Mexico, obtaining for the United States most of its present boundaries as a nation.
A man of firm personal principles, he kept his word to retire after a single term, although he easily could have won reelection. Despite Polk's accomplishments, many historians today regard him not as a great president but as one who missed opportunities. He failed to understand the depth of popular emotion over the westward expansion of the South's "peculiar institution." This failure on his part left the issue of slavery unaddressed and thus unresolved at the end of his term in 1849.
Youth and Family
Polk was born on a family farm in North Carolina. When he was ten, his family traveled by covered wagon to the frontier of Tennessee to carve a plantation out of the wilderness. The hardships of the journey damaged Polk's health for the rest of his life.
The Polk family did well financially, ultimately acquiring thousands of acres and more than fifty slaves. Polk was schooled at home and at two Presbyterian schools in Middle Tennessee. At the age of twenty, he continued his education at the University of North Carolina, graduating in 1818. He then returned home to study law under a prominent Nashville lawyer. In 1825, Polk won election to the United States House of Representatives, where he served seven terms.
Building Political Assets
Andrew Jackson enjoyed the support of Polk's father in his unsuccessful 1824 presidential campaign. When Jackson finally won the White House in 1828, Polk proved to be his closest ally in Congress. With Jackson behind him, Polk became the Speaker of the House in 1835, a position he held for four years. He so strongly supported Jackson's initiatives that his colleagues nicknamed him "Young Hickory." In 1839, he was elected governor of Tennessee.
When Polk ran for reelection in 1841, it was a bad time to be a Democrat. The country was in a severe depression, complete with bank failures and farm foreclosures, and the new Whig Party heaped blame on the party of Andrew Jackson. Polk lost the election. After a second defeat at the polls in 1843, Polk turned his attention to the family plantation.
Polk's wife, Sarah Childress, whom he married in 1824, helped him throughout his political career. A wealthy and well-educated Tennessean, she proved to be the perfect political wife of the day, entertaining and mingling easily with people—in contrast to her more reserved husband. When she settled into the life of the Polk plantation after her husband's second gubernatorial defeat, she probably had no idea that her next residence would be the White House.
Surprising Nomination and Close Election
When Democrats convened to select their presidential nominee for the election of 1844, no one expected Polk to emerge at the top of the ticket. Former President Martin Van Buren was the front-runner—but Van Buren had lost to the Whig William Henry Harrison in 1840, and many felt he was too weak a candidate. Moreover, the New Yorker had lost the support of the South due to his opposition to annexing Texas. The convention deadlocked, and prodded by Andrew Jackson, Van Buren threw his delegates behind the nation's first dark horse candidate: James Knox Polk. Opposition Whigs soon asked, "Who is James K. Polk?" In order to answer this question, Polk developed an explicit platform.
With Pennsylvania's George M. Dallas as his running mate, Polk announced his support both for the annexation of Texas and for the "reoccupation" of all of the Oregon Territory, which the United States then jointly occupied with the British between the latitudes of 42° and 54°40'. With his supporters pushing the slogan, "Fifty-Four Forty or Fight," Polk thus balanced the idea of a new slave state (Texas) with the possibility of a new free state (Oregon).
The election was vicious, with slavery and slander at its center. Both Polk and his Whig opponent, Henry Clay, owned slaves, but Clay opposed the annexation of Texas. The emergence of a third party further clouded things, and despite losing his home state of Tennessee Polk ultimately won with the thinnest margin in history.
Territory, Tariffs, and Slavery
Polk soon found himself in a crisis. After acquiring the territory containing present-day Oregon, Washington, and Idaho from the British, he turned his attention to Texas, which had been annexed by President John Tyler in his last days in office in 1845. Responding to Mexican counterclaims, Polk sent U.S. Army troops, under then-Colonel Zachary Taylor, into the disputed area on Texas's southern border. After a clash in late April 1846 between American and Mexican troops in the area, Polk requested and received a declaration of war from Congress. Within sixteen months, U.S. forces drove deep into Mexico, capturing Mexico City in September 1847. In the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the United States imposed a Rio Grande border for Texas and paid $15 million to Mexico for the territories of California and New Mexico.
Domestically, Polk wanted to stabilize the U.S. banking system and to lower tariffs. He also found himself challenged by the Wilmot Proviso, a bill that intended to ban slavery in all territories acquired from Mexico. With fierce maneuvering on all sides, and with Polk opposed to it, the Proviso passed the House repeatedly, but the Senate never concurred. The unresolved status of slavery in the new western territories outlived disputes over banking and the tariff, becoming the most contentious issue facing the United States in the years immediately following Polk's presidency.
Polk kept his promise not to run for a second term and was succeeded in office by the hero of the Mexican War, Zachary Taylor, candidate of the opposition Whig Party and a man whom Polk despised. Less than three months later, Polk was dead, possibly of cholera contracted on a long tour of the southern states. He left most of his estate to his wife, with the request that she free their slaves upon her death. Polk left behind a country that was both larger and weaker—expanded by more than a million square miles but fatally torn over the key issue these new lands had once again brought to the fore: slavery.
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.
The Campaign and Election of 1844
When Democrats gathered in Baltimore, Maryland, in May 1844, none could have foreseen the eventual outcome. Former President Martin Van Buren came to Baltimore with a clear majority of delegates pledged to him on the first ballot, but many Democrats opposed the New Yorker for a variety of reasons. Some simply thought Van Buren was a losing candidate given his unpopularity in 1840, when he had lost decisively to the Whig candidate, William Henry Harrison. Also, many "Young Democrats" judged Van Buren as a member of the "old dynasty" associated with "old politics." Others were southern men enraged that Van Buren had recently come out in opposition to Texas annexation. It was this concern for victory and new faces that moved anti-Van Buren forces to insist that the convention follow the precedent of previous Democratic conventions by requiring a two-thirds majority for nomination.
When Van Buren announced his opposition to annexing Texas, he committed political suicide. It was one of the most calculated decisions he ever made, one he knew would make it very difficult to bring southern Democrats to his side. He reasoned, however, that to support the annexation—which President John Tyler had surprisingly proposed—would lose him his home state of New York and any chance for soothing the growing antislavery sentiments of the Northeast. His only hope when the convention opened was that while he could not easily get the two-thirds vote required, no other candidate stood a better chance. His strongest opponent, Lewis Cass of Michigan, the former minister to France and Jackson's secretary of war, came to the convention with the solid support of Delaware, Virginia, Mississippi, and Tennessee but far behind in the actual delegate count.
When the balloting began, Van Buren peaked on the first ballot, then fell downward while Cass moved up. On the fifth ballot, Cass overtook Van Buren. Seeing that he would never be nominated and furious with Cass for having robbed him of the nomination, Van Buren threw his support behind the first dark horse candidate ever to be nominated by a major political party: James K. Polk. It had happened on the ninth ballot at 2 p.m. on May 30, 1844.
Early the next morning, the Democrats nominated George M. Dallas of Pennsylvania for vice president and presented the expected party platform: strict construction of the U.S. Constitution and opposition to the Whigs' "American System" of a national bank, high protective tariffs, and federally funded internal improvements such as canals and roads. The platform also denounced federal interference with "the domestic institutions of the several States"—meaning slavery. On the issue of westward expansion, Democrats committed their party to the "reoccupation of Oregon and the re-annexation of Texas, at the earliest practicable period." This was a compromise between southern Democrats who wanted immediate annexation and northern Democrats who had their doubts about any annexation treaty at all.
At its convention, the Whig Party nominated Henry Clay on the first ballot. This was a bold attempt to distance the party from President John Tyler, whose fights with his cabinet and his party had left him without a trace of support from the party whose ticket he had run on in 1840. (See the Tyler biography, 1844 campaign and election section for details on this episode.) When Tyler, having succeeded the dead President Harrison to office, vetoed in succession two Whig bills creating a new national bank, his entire cabinet—except for Daniel Webster—resigned in protest. Hoping to create a new constituency for himself, Tyler then endorsed, contrary to Whig sentiments, the immediate annexation of Texas, sending a hastily drawn treaty to the Senate for its consent. When the Whig-controlled Senate refused to approve the treaty, Texas annexation became the key issue of the 1844 election.
After nominating as its vice presidential candidate Theodore Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, an active evangelical Christian with known antislavery views, the Whig Party adopted its first ever platform. It supported high tariffs, restrictions on the presidential veto, and a one-term presidency. Convinced that the election would propel the well-known Clay into the White House and that Frelinghuysen's views on slavery might help the Kentuckian in the Northeast, most Whigs paid little attention at first to the new antislavery Liberty Party, which nominated former Democrat James G. Birney of Michigan. Indeed, perhaps Polk had more to fear since, other than antislavery, the Liberty Party's platform mirrored that of the Democrats. But Birney also hated Clay.
Because Clay came out decisively against the immediate annexation of Texas, and because Polk just as firmly supported it, the campaign presented a clear choice to the American electorate. Once Clay realized that the new Liberty Party might pull away just enough Whigs to hurt him, he tried to present himself as an enemy of slavery by the mere fact that he opposed the immediate annexation of Texas. The fact that he was a slave owner convinced most abolitionists, however, that Clay would do little as President to hinder slavery as an institution. On the other hand, the more he tried to identify himself as an opponent of slavery expansion, the less chance he had for winning the South.
Polk, also a slaveholder, vowed to serve just one term as President and restated not only his commitment to the annexation of Texas but also to obtaining clear title (from the British) to all of the Northwest between the latitude of 42° south and 54°40' north—present day Oregon, Idaho, Washington, and much of British Columbia. Allowing his supporters to use the campaign slogan, "Fifty-four Forty or Fight," Polk balanced the idea of a new slave state (Texas) entering the union with the possibility of a new free state (Oregon) joining as well.
Although where each candidate stood on Texas was clear, both candidates danced around other issues. For example, Polk—who had always opposed high tariffs—confused matters when he tried to assure eastern Democrats that he understood their needs to have protective tariffs imposed on foreign goods. As a result, much of the campaign centered on personal attacks against each candidate. Despite Polk having been Speaker of the House of Representatives, Andrew Jackson's point-man in the Bank War, and governor of Tennessee, Whigs still mocked him as a nobody, asking again and again, "Who is James K. Polk?" One prominent Whig answered the question thusly: "A blighted burr that has fallen from the mane of the war-horse of the Hermitage." The Whigs blanketed the nation with hundreds of thousands of anti-Polk tracts, accusing him of being a puppet of the "slaveocracy" and a radical who would destroy the United States over Texas. They circulated a false story alleging that Polk had sold many of his slaves to slave traders over the years—and in those days no category of individuals held a more negative reputation than did the roaming slave traders of the old South.
Democrats responded to these attacks in kind, slandering Clay as a man "notorious for his fiendish and vindictive spirit, for his disregard of the most important moral obligations, for his blasphemy, for his gambling propensities, and for his frequent and blood-thirsty attempts upon the lives of his fellow-men." They claimed that Clay had systematically violated every one of the Ten Commandments. Especially played up were rumors of his womanizing habits in Washington brothels. According to the Democratic press, candidate Clay had left no sin untried. In the South, Democrats employed racist language and accused Clay of perhaps the worst sin of all: being an abolitionist.
When the balloting finished, the dark horse candidate had beat Clay by a razor thin margin—1,338,464 popular votes to Clay's 1,300,097—a difference of 38,367 votes. Even though Clay won five slave states, including Tennessee and North Carolina, Polk netted 170 electoral votes to Clay's 105. Birney, who in the campaign had accused Clay of secretly planning to annex Texas, won 62,300 votes. In the pivotal state of New York, Birney won more than the number of votes Clay needed to carry the state, handing it to Polk. Had Clay won New York, he would have defeated Polk in the popular vote and, more importantly, by a slim margin of 141-134 in the Electoral College.
Polk assumed the presidency without having won a majority of the popular vote, although he did win a plurality. His election was the closest in U.S. history, and it demonstrated that a mature two-party system had finally emerged out of the tumultuous Jacksonian years. Party newspapers, machinery, and organizations were fully operational at the town and county level, and a great deal of party loyalty dominated the election. Most men had based their vote less on their preference for any individual candidate than on their own party identification and the twin issues of slavery and Texas annexation.
James K. Polk's agenda, unlike that of his two immediate predecessors, was largely driven by foreign policy considerations, namely, territorial expansion and foreign trade. Each of these, however, promised profound domestic consequences, the former in terms of the slavery question and the latter in terms of what to do about tariff levels. In addition, Polk had promised during the campaign to revive the now moribund Independent Treasury system, first enacted in 1840 during the presidency of Martin Van Buren but repealed a year later by a Whig-dominated Congress. Thus, Polk intended to address four of the most contentious issues of the Jacksonian Era, each of which had sectional implications: territorial expansion, slavery, banking, and the tariff. Of these, slavery had been the least debated at the national level; with the Mexican War under Polk, however, this would change.
Walker Tariff of 1846
During his election campaign Polk had stated his opposition to protective tariffs but not to tariffs that might in some way provide protection for certain goods by making imports unaffordable. But at what point does a tariff rate on any given item become protective? To answer this question, Polk soon after his inauguration commissioned a study of tariff levels from his secretary of the treasury, Robert J. Walker. Following his nationwide survey, Walker suggested a much more significant reduction in tariff rates than Polk had intimated to northeastern Democrats he would support. Soon a bill was before the U.S. Congress, despite opposition from within Polk's own cabinet. After a debate along largely sectional lines, with southerners and westerners favoring the new tariff bill and all but a few northerners opposing it, Vice President George M. Dallas cast the tie-breaking vote in the Senate. Polk quickly signed into law what became known as the Walker Tariff. The Walker Tariff moved rates downward towards revenue-only levels and dropped the policy of an ad valorem rate (a percent of the value of the goods) in favor of a set rate regardless of the value. A few commodities were listed as duty-free.
Independent Treasury Act of 1846
With his hard-won victory in the tariff debate, Polk next moved to revive the Independent Treasury Act that President Martin Van Buren had signed into law in 1840 and the Whig-dominated Congress had repealed the next year. The act established independent treasury deposit offices separate from private or state banks to receive all government funds. The system was designed to be a long term replacement for both the Second Bank of the United States, which Jackson had "killed," and a remedy for the ensuing wild speculation resulting from Jackson's policies that contributed to the major depression of the late 1830s. The Whigs had repealed the act as a step toward recreating an institution more similar to the Second Bank of the United States. The new Independent Treasury established by Polk entrusted the federal government with the exclusive management of government funds and required that disbursements be made in hard specie, such as gold or silver, or in paper backed by gold or silver. This would, hopefully, avoid undue speculation in western lands as the nation expanded its territory.
The Mexican War (see Foreign Affairs section) progressed too rapidly and too decisively for much antiwar sentiment to gain wide support at home. The most substantial opposition came from New England Whigs, Christian pacifists, and antislavery or abolitionist Americans. What these groups had in common was not so much a rejection of a belief in American's Manifest Destiny. Rather they objected to using military force to spread American republican institutions, rather peaceful annexation. For most opponents, the war was a transparent attempt to extend slavery into new territories that would become new slave states, thus ensuring that the South would control Congress and the presidency into the foreseeable future. In this heated atmosphere, it is understandable that one of the main domestic issues during James K. Polk's presidency was the extension of slavery into new American territories.
Wilmot Proviso: Slavery in the New Territories
On August 8, 1846, Democratic Congressman David Wilmot of Pennsylvania introduced an amendment to an Army appropriations (spending) bill that brought the slavery issue to a head. The "Wilmot Proviso" asserted that "neither slavery not involuntary servitude shall ever exist in any part of" the territory acquired from Mexico. Wilmot's amendment passed in the House but failed even to come to a vote in the Senate. Whether the amendment won approval or not was less consequential than the fact that the debate over the Wilmot Proviso revealed a growing sectional rift within the two major parties. While nearly all northern Democrats joined with all northern Whigs to support the amendment, southern Democrats and southern Whigs voted against it. "Mr. Polk's War" had clearly exposed the old wound of sectionalism, and this time it threatened to split even the reliably pro-slavery Democratic Party.
The issue also weakened Polk with his most avid southern supporters, who rallied around John C. Calhoun of South Carolina. Calhoun had formulated "the southern rights position" to the Wilmot Proviso, introducing resolutions in the Senate affirming the rights of slave owners to transport their "human chattel" anywhere in the territories of the United States. Polk, on the other hand, endorsed the idea of extending the old Missouri Compromise line of 36°30' to the Pacific Ocean. This would have excluded slavery from present-day Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Utah, Nevada, and the northern half of California while allowing it in present-day New Mexico, Arizona, and southern California. At the end of Polk's term, the issue of slavery in the new territories loomed as one of the key issues facing the nation.
During James K. Polk's presidency, foreign policy revolved around the U.S. desire for additional territory in North America. Even before the Revolutionary War, Americans had looked westward, and in the early years of the republic the United States had expanded its borders toward and then beyond the Mississippi River. Whether through a congressional joint resolution, negotiations, purchase, or war, President Polk by the end of his term intended for the United States to stretch from coast to coast, firmly in possession of the Oregon Territory and California.
Annexation of Texas
President Tyler, in the last months of his term, boldly sent a joint resolution to Congress for the annexation of Texas. A resolution required only a simple majority vote in both houses rather than the two-thirds majority in the Senate that is normally required for a treaty. Tyler sent Congress a resolution because he knew that the two-thirds vote in the Senate was not to be had. Congress passed the joint resolution a few days before Polk's inauguration in March 1845. This allowed Texas to bypass the territorial stage and come into the union as the fifteenth slave state in December 1845. Although Mexico had promised war against the United States if it annexed Texas, no war followed. But when Texas moved its militia into disputed territory west of the Nueces River, thereby staking a claim to the Rio Grande as its southern border, Mexico responded by breaking off diplomatic relations with the United States.
During the 1844 campaign, Polk had pledged to settle the boundary of the Oregon Territory with Britain, and once in office, he moved quickly to acquire sole title to Oregon. His supporters in the 1844 campaign had promoted the occupation of the entire territory, as encapsulated in their slogan (which Polk did not disavow), "54°40' or Fight." Both Great Britain and the United States had jointly occupied this region since 1818, and it was clear that Polk wanted the west coast of North America for the United States, possibly even including Mexican-controlled California. In the beginnings of negotiations, Polk bluffed to Britain that he wanted all the territory up to 54°40'. In the end, the President's shrewd but unseemly bluster earned him a compromise rather than a war with the British. In spite of his own supporters' more extreme demands, Polk agreed to a boundary at the 49th parallel, giving the United States present-day Oregon, Idaho, and Washington, as well as control of the Columbia River.
War with Mexico
Polk now turned the entirety of his attention toward Mexico. Much was at stake in the area. Great Britain had been discussing with Mexico for months the possibility of buying California. The British previously had offered to support the independence of Texas in return for the abolition of slavery in the area. Even before settling the Oregon question, Polk had moved troops into the disputed territory just north of the Rio Grande and sent a special envoy, John Slidell, to Mexico. Slidell carried with him a U.S. offer to buy California as well as plenipotentiary powers to settle disputed border claims. Slidell's arrival in Mexico triggered a revolt against the Mexican president—who had indicated a willingness to deal with Slidell—by army officers who pledged to recover the "stolen province of Mexico."
In late April 1846, Mexican troops crossed the Rio Grande and killed eleven U.S. soldiers. In response, Polk requested a declaration of war from Congress, arguing that Mexicans had "shed the blood of our fellow-citizens on our own soil." By May 13, 1846, both nations officially were at war. Most Whigs opposed the war, as did Calhoun, but all remembered how the nation had turned on the Federalists following their opposition to the War of 1812. Hence, only fourteen members of the House and two senators voted against the declaration. Abraham Lincoln, a first-term Whig congressman from Illinois, condemned the war as an "unconstitutional" and aggressive act, even challenging Polk to take him to Texas and show him "the spot" on which Mexicans had shed American blood. This position proved unpopular with his western constituents and figured into his decision not to run for a second term.
Within seven months, the U.S. Army completely defeated the much larger Mexican Army on its own soil in three triumphant military campaigns. The first phase was conducted by General Zachary Taylor's four-thousand-man army in northern Mexico. Engaging much larger forces, Taylor earned the nickname "Old Rough and Ready" for his victories at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma and, after being reinforced by several thousand volunteers, his capture of Monterrey in September 1846.
Phase Two commenced under General Stephen Watts Kearny, who meanwhile led an army of fifteen hundred regulars and fighting frontiersmen west from Fort Leavenworth to Santa Fe in New Mexico, occupying it on August 18, 1846. Half of Kearny's army then fought their way through the Mexican province of Chihuahua, marching three thousand miles to link up with Taylor's army at Monterrey in the spring of 1847. The other half of Kearny's forces joined American settlers in California under the command of Captain John C. Fremont, who had captured Sonoma and declared California an independent republic. Their flag, displaying the picture of a grizzly bear, gave rise to the term "bear-flag revolt."
The third phase of the war had all the markings of a comic opera. In July 1846, Polk provided safe passage into Mexico for a former Mexican army officer who had been overthrown in a palace coup in 1844 and exiled to Cuba—the infamous General Antonio López de Santa Anna. Commander of Mexican forces at the Battle of the Alamo, Santa Anna was a man hated by Texans and distrusted by his own countrymen. He promised Polk that he would make peace on American terms in return for a payoff of $30 million. When Santa Anna arrived in Mexico City, however, the new government named him supreme commander of the army and president of the republic. He immediately raised a new army and marched north in early 1847 to attack Taylor's force at Monterrey. In the meantime, Polk was growing increasingly worried about Taylor's popularity. Angry with the general for having declared an armistice without his approval after capturing Monterey, Polk transferred half of Taylor's army to General-in-Chief Winfield Scott, whom Polk ordered to lead an invasion of central Mexico.
Taylor, a Whig who suspected political intrigue on Polk's part, met in battle Santa Anna's fifteen-thousand-man army at Buena Vista on February 22, 1847. When the smoke cleared, Taylor's five thousand Americans had defeated Santa Anna's army in a fierce battle marked by the courageous counterattack of a Mississippi regiment commanded by young Jefferson Davis. When news of Taylor's victory reached back home, his popularity soared and Whigs began publicly to mention his name as a possible candidate for the presidency.
In a daring and unprecedented amphibious landing, Scott captured the port of Veracruz in March 1847. Then, in one of the riskiest field maneuvers in the books, he launched a five-month, hard-fought campaign over the two hundred miles to Mexico City. Most European military strategists predicted disaster, because not only was Scott's army outnumbered three to one, it was cut off from its supply bases, filled with ill-trained volunteers, and operating in unknown terrain. But in the end, and after bloody hand-to-hand fighting, Scott's army stood in possession of Mexico City on September 14, 1847.
With Mexico's capital in American hands, Polk sent diplomat Nicholas Trist to negotiate the terms of Mexican surrender with yet another new government, this one having overthrown Santa Anna after his loss of Mexico City. Expansionist fever at home in his own party pressured Polk to wring every possible concession from Mexico. Some even called for the annexation of "All Mexico," although all Polk really wanted was California. Trist resisted Polk's instructions, however, and so the President recalled him. In spite of this, the diplomat continued to negotiate with Mexico, and on February 2, 1848, he signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which authorized U.S. payment of $15 million for California and New Mexico, and named the Rio Grande as the Texas border.
With the treaty in hand, Polk wisely decided to submit it to the Senate. After a short debate, the Senate approved the treaty on March 10, 1848, by a vote of thirty-eight to fourteen. Half of the opposition came from Democrats who wanted more Mexican territory, and half from Whigs who wanted none at all. Mexico, in what was called the Mexican Cession, ceded over one-third of its territory to the United States, increasing the latter's size by one-fourth. This Mexican Cession now contains the present-day states of Arizona, Utah, Nevada, California, much of New Mexico, and portions of Wyoming and Colorado. Just before leaving office, Polk created the Department of the Interior in an effort to help organize and administer these vast new western lands.
American deaths in the Mexican War surpassed 13,000, although only 2,053 of this number died in battle or from wounds received in combat—the rest died from disease. Another 4,100 Americans were wounded. Mexico suffered nearly 50,000 casualties. The Mexican War was the first war covered by large numbers of the press, and Polk's reliance on volunteers gave the war a democratic character. Influential American men of letters like Walt Whitman and James Fenimore Cooper saw it as the beginning of a world movement to extend democracy.
Treaty of New Granada
Concerned that Britain might use the war with Mexico to expand its claims in Central America and the Caribbean, Polk responded positively to the initiative of New Granada (present-day Colombia) for a commercial treaty. The agreement, signed by U.S. Minister Benjamin A. Bidlack, conveyed to the U.S. the right of way across the Isthmus of Panama. In return, the United States promised to guarantee the neutrality of the isthmus and the sovereignty of New Granada. In so doing, Polk paved the way for the eventual construction in 1914 of the Panama Canal, although a canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans already found boosters within Polk's cabinet. Meanwhile, Polk opened discussions with Spain with the aim of purchasing Cuba, although in this case his goal was to prevent another war of annexation being pushed by certain fellow Democrats. However, Spain was not interested in the U.S. offer.
True to his word, in 1848 Polk reiterated his intention to retire at the end of his single term, although he could easily have been nominated for a second term. He confided in his diary that he felt "exceedingly relieved" to be free from public duty. Unfortunately, he was able to enjoy less than three months of retirement, the least of any former President. After handing over the reins of government to his successor, Zachary Taylor, the Whig candidate whom he had correctly suspected of planning to use his Mexican War heroism to seek the presidency, Polk embarked on an extensive tour of the southern states. His trip took him from the Atlantic seaboard, west along the Gulf states, and up the Mississippi River to Tennessee. Everywhere he traveled, the crowds were large and festive, and he felt overjoyed with the proclamations of affection and thanks. At the end of the trip, he moved into his recently purchased estate in Nashville, which the former President named "Polk Place." He spent his final weeks there remodeling the estate and sorting through his presidential papers.
Seriously ill during the last days of his tour, possibly from cholera that had broken out in New Orleans while he was there, Polk cut short his trip because of fatigue and bouts of diarrhea. At first he thought that it was just more of the same symptoms that had plagued him throughout his life, but his weakness grew progressively worse. He died on June 15, 1849. Polk left most of his estate to his wife, with the request that she free their slaves upon her death. In 1893, Polk's body was transferred from the Polk Place cemetery to a tomb at the state capitol in Nashville.
Although Polk was a religious man, his faith seldom equaled the stern beliefs of Sarah's outspoken devotion. Raised a Presbyterian, Polk had never been baptized due to a family argument with the local Presbyterian minister in rural North Carolina. At age thirty-eight, Polk experienced a religious conversion to Methodism at a camp meeting, and thereafter he thought of himself as a Methodist. Out of respect for his mother and wife, however, he continued to attend Presbyterian services even if he was not overly fond of their Calvinist content. But whenever his wife was out of town or too ill to attend church, Polk worshiped at the local Methodist chapel. On his deathbed, he summoned the man who had converted him years before, the Methodist Reverend John B. McFerrin, who at last baptized Polk.
Never having children, Polk had no family life as President other than what Sarah would arrange for him. His family was politics, and he pursued it relentlessly. One biographer writes that aside from politics, Polk "had no aspirations, intellectual interests, recreation, or even friendships." He once described himself as the hardest-working man in Washington, and even his political enemies marveled at his ability to accomplish so much on a daily basis.
In 1844, the U.S. population reached 19.6 million people, an increase from 1840 of nearly 2.4 million people. Amazingly, four years later, the national population increased another 2 million, reaching 22 million (a 13-percent increase). Four new states came into the union between the time of Polk's election and the end of his term: Florida (1845), Texas (1845), Iowa (1846), and Wisconsin (1848). This kept the balance at exactly fifteen slave states and fifteen free states, although the status of California and New Mexico remained undecided when Polk left office.
These 4.4 million new Americans—of which 1.5 million were immigrants, mainly from Germany and Ireland—entered a country that was highly partisan and increasingly sectional in its politics. In 1840, nearly 2.8 million people had voted, or an astounding 80.2 percent of the eligible voters, up from 57 percent in 1836. This remarkable rate held in 1844 at 78.9 percent of eligible voters and remained in the high seventies for the remainder of the century. Obviously, the 2.7 million voters in 1844 held firm to the 1840 party lines. Indeed, if Clay had not lost votes in New York to the Liberty Party candidate, James G. Birney, he would have won the popular vote and the Electoral College vote as well.
Suffrage, Prosperity, and the New Classes
Along with this growth came immense economic changes that in turn drove politics and encouraged partisanship. The richest man in America in 1845, for example, was John Jacob Astor, who held a fortune worth $25 million. On the other hand, due to industrialization, squalid working class slums began to appear in every American city, principally filled with Irish and German immigrants as well as free black men and women. By 1845, the top 1 percent of wealthiest people in New York City held 50 percent of the total wealth, an increase of 10 percent since 1828. And the cities were larger: Philadelphia stood at 389,000 in 1850; New York was twice as large. Mortality rates in these two cities were exceedingly high, and a slave born in the 1840s could on average expect to live longer than a person born in New York or Philadelphia. About 70 percent of the people who lived in these cities were poor, with annual incomes of $100 or less. Another 25 to 30 percent were middle class, with yearly incomes between $100 and $5,000. Only 3 percent earned more than $5,000 each year. Those Americans who chose to remain in the countryside and grow cash crops rather than seek their financial prosperity in the city could expect to be healthier and to live longer.
In an appeal to tenant farmers, craftsmen, and adult males living in white households, Jacksonian Democrats had worked in the 1820s and 1830s to widen the franchise beyond property owners in order to include all adult white males. But they failed to anticipate this new urban class of unskilled workers and the influx of immigrants. Now even Democrats were nervous about just how broad the franchise had become, but they did a better job than Whigs in garnering the votes of immigrants and factory workers. Those who prospered in the cities amid the changing economy tended to vote Whig and those who did not tended to vote Democrat.
Era of Reform
Although no women were allowed to vote in any state in the 1840s, many were involved in political activism through Christian reform movements. Nearly every church in the nation had charity groups staffed and run largely by women. The spread of public education in the North and West was accompanied by droves of women teachers in a field previously dominated by men. By 1850, women staffed most of the primary teaching positions in the nation's expanding roster of public and private elementary schools. Thousands of women joined Martha Washington Temperance Reform Societies, campaigning to end the drinking of hard liquor, which had peaked at an average of seven gallons per person in 1836. This was an offshoot of the Washington Temperance Society, a working class competitor to Lyman Beecher's American Temperance Society. By 1850, the consumption rate had decreased by half. Numerous other women joined the Female Moral Reform Society, which worked to eliminate prostitution by organizing charity and work opportunities for poor women and orphans. Others in the 1840s campaigned to reform the horrible conditions of the nation's insane asylums, orphanages, and prisons.
Some Americans, concluding that culture mattered more than politics, embraced utopian communities and new religions as alternatives to political activism. Groups such as the Millerites, the Shakers, the Oneida Community, and socialist communities appealed to thousands of men and women. Roman Catholics founded many new convents and monasteries during this time period as well, and in response anti-Catholicism in a variety of forms became a major movement of its own under the leadership of Lyman Beecher and Samuel F. B. Morse. Besides defamatory literature, this included the burning of an Ursuline convent and school outside Boston in 1834 and a series of deadly riots against Irish Catholics in Philadelphia in 1844.
But no new religious movement was more successful, and more attacked, than the one founded by Joseph Smith. In 1830 Smith published the Book of Mormon, a text about ancient North America that he claimed to have discovered in New York state and then translated from an ancient Egyptian dialect. Smith called his new religion the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints but most Americans nicknamed it Mormonism. Mormonism blended an extraordinary communitarianism with hard work and selfless cooperation, enabling the group to prosper and grow in numbers. The Mormons' success, and the unique features of its religion, which included polygamy, aroused the wrath of non-Mormon neighbors, who believed that the group was un-American and anti-individualist. The Mormons were forced to flee from their homes in New York and Ohio to Illinois, where a mob killed Smith. After dissension split the community, the bulk moved on to the Great Salt Lake region of present-day Utah, located in the northernmost part of the Mexican Cession.
Women's Political Voice
Thousands of women worked in the forefront of the abolitionist movement in the 1840s, canvassing their neighborhoods in petition drives requesting the abolition of the slave trade in the District of Columbia. When the abolitionist movement split in 1840 into those that advocated forming a new political party to run abolitionist candidates for office and those that continued to insist on moral suasion alone, female adherents also followed suit.
Most women activists discovered, however, that while they were valued to do much of the legwork, there were few opportunities for them to lead or to speak out as women. The few who did, such as Sojourner Truth and the Grimke sisters, were criticized at every turn, frequently by fellow male reformers. The women were told that their best contributions could be made in ways reflecting the popular notion of separate spheres for men and women—the public world for men and the private world of the home and family for women. Empowered by their own sense of accomplishment as reformers, a group of women (led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott) organized the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 in upstate New York to focus specifically on women's rights. The Convention's Declaration of Sentiments, a document modeled on the Declaration of Independence and infused with a then-new Marxist interpretation of history as a conflict of classes, began by asserting, "We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men and women are created equal." It went on to state, "The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her." After documenting this "tyranny," the Declaration called for women's suffrage as the best means for women to protect themselves and to realize their potential as humans equal to men.
Depending on whom one reads, Polk comes across as either a nearly great President or as a man who missed great opportunities. Clearly, his impact was significant. Polk accomplished nearly everything that he said he wanted to accomplish as President and everything he had promised in his party's platform: acquisition of the Oregon Territory, California, and the Territory of New Mexico; the positive settlement of the Texas border dispute; lower tariff rates; the establishment of a new federal depository system; and the strengthening of the executive office. He masterfully kept open lines of communication with Congress, established the Department of the Interior, built up an administrative press, and conducted himself as a representative of the whole people. Polk came into the presidency with a focused political agenda and a clear set of convictions. He left office the most successful President since George Washington in the accomplishment of his goals.
On the other hand, Polk's critics charge that his underestimation of the Mexican War's potential for disunion over the issue of slavery and his lack of concern with matters relating to the modernization of the nation contributed greatly to the sectional crisis of 1849-1850 and, in the early 1850s, to the fragmentation of both major parties. Polk's critics accuse him of being too partisan to understand the dangerous depth of the emotions that might erupt over the expansion of slavery westward. He left the nation at the end of his term facing its greatest political and social crisis since the American Revolution. That crisis would progressively tear the nation apart in the twelve years between 1848 and 1860.