Top 10 Things to Know About U.S. President James K. Polk

Engraved portrait of James K Polk

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James K. Polk (1795–1849) served as America's 11th president from March 4, 1845–March 3, 1849, and is considered by many to be the best one-term president in American History. He was a strong leader during the Mexican War. He added a huge area to the United States from the Oregon Territory through Nevada and California. In addition, he kept all of his campaign promises. The following key facts will help you gain a greater understanding of the 11th president of the United States.

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Started Formal Education at 18

James K. Polk was born in North Carolina in 1795. He was a sickly child who suffered from gallstones throughout his childhood. At the age of 10, he moved with his family to Tennessee. At 17, he had his gallstones surgically removed, without the benefit of anesthesia or sterilization. Finally, at the age of 18, Polk was well enough to begin his formal education. By 1816, he was accepted at the University of North Carolina, where he graduated from two years later with honors.

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Well-Educated First Lady

In 1824, Polk married Sarah Childress (1803–1891) who was extremely well educated for the time. She attended the Salem Female Academy (high school) in North Carolina, an educational institution for women established in 1772. Polk relied on her throughout his political life to help him write speeches and letters. She was an effective, respected, and influential first lady.

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'Young Hickory'

In 1825, Polk won a seat in the US House of Representatives, where he would serve for 14 years. He earned the nickname "Young Hickory" because of his support of Andrew Jackson, who was known as "Old Hickory." When Jackson won the presidency in 1828, Polk's star was on the rise, and he became quite powerful in Congress. He served as speaker of the House from 1835–1839, only leaving Congress to become the governor of Tennessee.

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Dark Horse Candidate

Polk was not expected to run for president in 1844. Martin Van Buren wanted to be nominated for a second term as president, but his stance against the annexation of Texas was unpopular with the Democratic Party. The delegates went through nine ballots before compromising on Polk as their pick for president.

In the general election, Polk ran against Whig candidate Henry Clay, who opposed the annexation of Texas. Both Clay and Polk ended up receiving 50% of the popular vote. However, Polk was able to get 170 out of 275 electoral votes.

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Annexation of Texas

The election of 1844 centered around the issue of the annexation of Texas, which was then an independent republic after it gained independence from Mexico in 1836. President John Tyler was a strong supporter of annexation. His support, combined with Polk's popularity, meant that the annexation measure passed three days before Tyler's term in office ended.

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54°40' or Fight

One of Polk's campaign pledges was to put an end to the boundary disputes in the Oregon territory between the US and Great Britain. His supporters took up the rallying cry "Fifty-four Forty or Fight," referring to the northern-most latitude of all of the Oregon Territory. However, once Polk became president he negotiated with the British to set the boundary at the 49th parallel, which gave America the areas that would become Oregon, Idaho, and Washington.

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Manifest Destiny

The term "manifest destiny" was coined by John O'Sullivan in 1845. In his argument for the annexation of Texas, he called it, "[T]he fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence." In other words, he was saying that America had a God-given right to extend from "sea to shining sea." Polk was president at this height of this furor and helped extend America with both his negotiations for the Oregon Territory boundary and the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo.

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Mr. Polk's War

In April 1846, Mexican troops crossed the Rio Grande and killed 11 U.S. soldiers. This came as part of a revolt against the Mexican president, who was considering America's bid to buy California. The soldiers were angered about the lands that they felt were taken through the annexation of Texas, and the Rio Grande was an area of border dispute. By May 13, the U.S. had officially declared war on Mexico. Critics of the war called it "Mr. Polk's War." The war was over by the end of 1847, with Mexico suing for peace.

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Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican War formally fixed the boundary between Texas and Mexico at the Rio Grande. In addition, the U.S. was able to acquire both California and Nevada. This was the greatest increase in U.S. land since Thomas Jefferson negotiated the Louisiana Purchase. America agreed to pay Mexico $15 million for the territories.

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Untimely Death

In 1849, Polk died at the age of 53, only three months after his retirement from office. He had no desire to run for re-election and had decided to retire. His death was probably due to cholera.

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Kelly, Martin. "Top 10 Things to Know About U.S. President James K. Polk." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Kelly, Martin. (2023, April 5). Top 10 Things to Know About U.S. President James K. Polk. Retrieved from Kelly, Martin. "Top 10 Things to Know About U.S. President James K. Polk." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).