James K. Polk: Significant Facts and Brief Biography

President James K. Polk

Engraved portrait of James K. Polk
James K. Polk. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Life span: Born: November 2, 1795, Mecklenburg County, North Carolina
Died: June 15, 1849, Tennessee

James Knox Polk died at the age of 53, after becoming very ill, and possibly contracting cholera during a visit to New Orleans. His widow, Sarah Polk, outlived him by 42 years.

Presidential term: March 4, 1845 - March 4, 1849

Accomplishments: Though Polk seemed to rise from relative obscurity to become president, he was quite competent in the job. He was known to work hard in the White House, and his administration's great accomplishment was in extending the United States to the Pacific Coast through the use of diplomacy as well as armed conflict.

Polk's administration has always been closely linked to the concept of Manifest Destiny.

Supported by: Polk was affiliated with the Democratic Party, and was closely allied with President Andrew Jackson. Growing up in the same part of the country as Jackson, Polk's family naturally supported Jackson's style of populism.

Opposed by: Polk's opponents were the members of the Whig Party, which had formed to oppose the policies of the Jacksonians.

Presidential campaigns: Polk's one presidential campaign was in the election of 1844, and his involvement was a surprise to everyone, including himself. The Democratic Convention in Baltimore that year was unable to choose a winner between two strong candidates, Martin Van Buren, a former president, and Lewis Cass, a powerful political figure from Michigan. After rounds of inconclusive balloting, Polk's name was placed in nomination, and he eventually won. Polk was thus known as the country's first dark horse candidate.

While he was being nominated at a brokered convention, Polk was at home in Tennessee. He only found out days later that he was running for president.

Spouse and family: Polk married Sarah Childress on New Year's Day, 1824. She was the daughter of a prosperous merchant and land speculator. The Polks had no children.

Education: As a child on the frontier, Polk received a very basic education at home. He attended school in his late teens, and attended college in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, from 1816 until his graduation in 1818. He then studied law for a year, which was traditional at the time, and was admitted to the Tennessee bar in 1820.

Early career: While working as a lawyer, Polk entered politics by winning a seat in the Tennessee legislature in 1823. Two years later he successfully ran for Congress, and served seven terms in the House of Representatives from 1825 to 1839.

In 1829 Polk became closely aligned with Andrew Jackson at the outset of his administration. As a member of congress Jackson could always rely upon, Polk played a role in some major controversies of Jackson's presidency, including Congressional squabbles over the Tariff of Abominations and the Bank War.

Later career: Polk died only months after leaving the presidency, and thus had no post-presidential career. His life after the White House amounted to a mere 103 days, the shortest time anyone has lived as a former president.

Unusual facts: While in his late teens Polk underwent serious and excruciating surgery for bladder stones, and it has long been suspected that the surgery left him sterile or impotent.

Death and funeral: After serving a single term as president, Polk left Washington on a long and roundabout route back home to Tennessee. What was supposed to be a celebratory tour of the South turned tragic as Polk's health began to fail. And it appeared that he had contracted cholera during a stop in New Orleans.

He returned to his estate in Tennessee, to a new house that was still unfinished, and seemed to recover for a time. But he suffered a relapse of illness, and died on June 15, 1849. After a funeral at a Methodist church in Nashville he was buried in a temporary tomb, and then a permanent grave at his estate, Polk Place. 


Polk has often been cited as a successful 19th century president as he set goals, which were primarily related to the expansion of the nation, and accomplished them. He also was aggressive in foreign affairs and expanded the executive powers of the presidency.

Polk is also considered to have been the strongest and most decisive president in the two decades before Lincoln. Though that judgment is colored by the fact that as the slavery crisis intensified, Polk's successors, especially in the 1850s, were caught trying to manage an increasingly volatile nation.

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McNamara, Robert. "James K. Polk: Significant Facts and Brief Biography." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/james-k-polk-significant-facts-1773429. McNamara, Robert. (2023, April 5). James K. Polk: Significant Facts and Brief Biography. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/james-k-polk-significant-facts-1773429 McNamara, Robert. "James K. Polk: Significant Facts and Brief Biography." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/james-k-polk-significant-facts-1773429 (accessed June 1, 2023).