James Polk

Today’s Chief Executive is James K. Polk. Polk was born in Tennessee and built a successful law practice there. He was elected to the US House in 1825 and rose to become Speaker; to this day, he is the only president ever to have been Speaker. He left the House in 1839 to run for governor of Tennessee; he won that election but was defeated for re-election. Polk then ran for President on the Democratic ticket in 1844, and was selected as a compromise nominee after no candidate could garner the needed two-thirds majority. Polk got the nomination basically because fewer people hated him than hated the other candidates; in fact, the term “dark horse candidate” was coined for him. 
 
Politically, Polk was very much a protege of Andrew Jackson, so much so that he was frequently referred to as “Young Hickory”. He was a fervent believer in American expansionism, and added more territory to the US than any other president except Thomas Jefferson. Polk settled the long-simmering dispute with Great Britain over the Oregon Territory, compromising with them that the Canadian border should be at the 49th parallel. He also started the Mexican War, allegedly to protect the interests of American citizens in Texas who were under threat of reconquest by Mexico, but his diaries show that his primary motive was getting more land from the Mexicans. The US won the Mexican War in short order, led by General Zachary Taylor (who will be the subject of a future Cake’s Take) and got the rest of the Southwest from Mexico; Mexico got smaller. (They did get $15 million in compensation for losing about half their land, though).
 
Polk’s term was largely consumed with the Mexican War and the question of whether slavery would be allowed in the territory obtained in the war; he was a slaveholder and favored the expansion of slavery. His biggest domestic achievement was instituting the Independent Treasury system, which established the US Treasury and sub-treasuries to hold government money rather than using private banks, as had been done before. This reform would last until the Federal Reserve was established in 1913. 
 
Polk had pledged to serve only one term and did not run for re-election in 1848; his health was badly damaged during his term by lead in the water of the White House plumbing system, and he died only three months after his term ended. He is buried on the grounds of the Tennesse state capitol, at least for now; his family is trying to get his (and his wife’s) remains moved to their private plot. 

2 thoughts on “James Polk

  1. Interesting, the concept of expansionism, especially the idea of gaining new territory via conquest. Was Polk the last President to embrace or enact such a philosophy or policy?

    Seems like the USA since those days is only willing to accept new territory if the residents desire it. Seems like the right move; conquered peoples are a long term pain in the ass.

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