Remembering James K. Polk

Remembering James K. Polk

June 15, 1849: Commemorating the death of our 11th president, who expanded our borders by more than a million square miles

Print of James K Polk

Under James Knox Polk, the United States added 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," 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.

Born in North Carolina but serving as a seven-term representative from Tennessee, Polk was President Andrew Jackson's closest ally in Congress. When he finally did run for president, he vowed to serve only four years, and kept his promise even though he was popular enough to have easily 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 slavery, leaving tension building and unresolved at the end of his term in 1849.

Find out more about James K. Polk's life, presidency, and legacy

In 2013, Daniel Walker Howe visited the Miller Center to deliver the lecture “James Knox Polk and the war with Mexico.”