Tuesday, March 25, 2008

#11 - James K. Polk, 1845-1849

Our 11th President, James Knox Polk, is one of our first really forgotten presidents. He's also one of my favorites. Considered to be the first "dark horse" candidate, he was the last "strong" (for however you would like to define that) president before the Civil War. A fellow Tennessean, he became close friends with Andrew Jackson. He served in the House of Representatives and then went back to Tennessee to serve as its governor. An aged Andrew Jackson made it known that Polk was his candidate and at the Democratic Convention, finally, on the ninth ballot, Polk was the nominee.

Polk campaigned on an expansionist platform, favoring annexation of Texas, which occurred before the election, but setting up war with Mexico. He also favored the "occupation" of Oregon, and bringing California into the Union. The slogan, "54-40 or fight" became the cry, indicating the latitudinal border with Russian Alaska. Once in office, Polk setting on the 49th parallel, setting the northern border of the United States from the Great Lakes to the Pacific, avoiding war with Canada (and the UK). To try and soothe Mexico, Polk offered $20 million. As tensions rose, Polk sent General Zachary Taylor (remember that name) to Texas, where his forces were soon attacked by Mexico. The Mexican War, ended in 1848, with the United States getting what they wanted anyway, California and New Mexico.

Polk left the presidency a broken man and in ill health. He did not seek reelection. He died just over three months after the inauguration of his successor, Zachary Taylor (told you to remember his name).

I would be remiss if I didn't point out the Mr. Polk is one of the few Presidents to have a song written exclusively about him. I have put the YouTube video at the bottom of this post. The song is by "They Might Be Giants." Here's a link to the lyrics so you can sing along. And if you need it, rumor has it that ADR has the song on his iPod.

The Facts
  • Born November 2, 1795 in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina
  • Died June 15, 1849 in Nashville, Tennessee at the age of 53
  • Party: Democrat
The Election of 1844
  • James K. Polk - Popular votes, 1,338,464 / Electoral votes, 170
  • Henry Clay - Popular votes, 1,300,097 / Electoral votes, 105
  • Polk oversaw the establishment of the United States Naval Academy and the Smithsonian Institution, as well as the groundbreaking for the Washington Monument. The California Gold Rush takes place during his presidency.
  • Polk became the youngest to assume the presidency, when he was inaugurated at 49.
  • He is considered the "Manifest Destiny" President, adding the most territory to the United States since the Louisiana Purchase.
  • The Liberty Bell's crack proves to be too large for the bell to be rung any longer (remember, it's not a crack, it's a repair).
  • His alleged last words illustrated his devotion to his wife, with whom he had no children: "I love you, Sarah. For all eternity, I love you." Sarah Childress Polk lived for forty years after her husband's death. Polk is also only one of three presidents to predecease their mothers. A week before his death, Polk was baptized a Methodist.


ADR said...

I've waited for this for weeks. James K. Polk is vastly underrated. We must fulfill our manifest destiny to get Polk the credit and attention he deserves.

Mary Witzl said...

Although I'm a native Californian and proud of it, I'm not a big fan of manifest destiny. Still, the U.S. would not have been the same without Polk, and he is part of that vibrantly colored tapestry. He also had a rather famous street named after him in San Francisco, which has grown even more famous for its annual Gay Parade. I have often wondered what Polk himself would have made of Polk Street and the parade.

I love his last words to his wife. I could read all of this in a history book, but I'd rather read it in interesting, bite-sized chunks in your blog.

Anna van Schurman said...

About the Liberty Bell, you're correct that the crack most people think is the crack is a repair. However, there is a crack, a tiny little hairline crack that could not be repaired that keeps the bell from ringing. Thank all those visiting relatives for the many trips to the Liberty Bell.

Anonymous said...

You failed to mention that a certain future president served as Secretary of State under Polk - yet another example to illustrate your point about the importance of that office in those days.

Brave Astronaut said...

ADR - I am glad to satisfy your Polk needs.

Mary - Maybe one could wonder if President #15 might enjoy San Francisco? Details to come. That pesky J in PA is sure to object to my characterizations as well. Glad you are enjoying the series.

Anna - it is those same trips that I have been on that it was drummed into me by some droning Park Ranger, "It's not a crack, it's a repair."

J in PA - Yes, it was my omission. Are you ghost writing for #15 or what?