James K. Polk, the eleventh President of the United States, was born on a farm near Pineville, North Carolina, on November 2, 1795, the first of ten children. The Polk family emigrated to America from Ireland. The family name was originally Pollock or Polock. For awhile it was pronounced Poll'k and was eventually shortened to Polk.
When Polk was about eleven years old, the family moved to the Duck River Valley in the central part of Tennessee where his father became wealthy by combining farming and surveying with land speculation. Because Polk was small and sickly, he was spared from doing many of the farm chores. He helped his father survey, manage the large farms, and clerked in a general store.
In 1818 Polk graduated at the top of his class at the University of North Carolina. He returned to Tennessee to practice law. There he met Andrew Jackson and became interested in local politics. While still practicing law in 1821, he became chief clerk of the Tennessee Senate. A couple of years later he was elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives. There he worked to reduce taxes and improve the school system. Polk supported Andrew Jackson's ("Old Hickory") presidential ambitions. Jackson and Polk became so close that Polk became known as "Young Hickory."
Polk met and courted Sarah Childress, the daughter of a well-to-do country merchant. She looked Spanish because of her black hair, dark eyes, and dark complexion. They were married on New Year's Day in 1824 in a large country wedding. They had no children.
Polk served seven consecutive terms in the United States of Representatives. He was bitterly opposed to the policies of John Quincy Adams who had defeated Andrew Jackson in 1824. During Jackson's presidency, Polk became Speaker of the House in 1835 and served for three years. He worked hard and was absent only once in fourteen years. No other Speaker ever became President. Under the persuasion of Jackson, Polk ran for the governor of Tennessee and won the election in 1839. He served only one term as governor, being defeated in both 1841 and 1843.
Polk became the Democratic candidate for President as a compromise when delegates could not agree on either former President Martin Van Buren or his rival Lewis Cass. When he accepted the nomination for President in 1844, he declared that he would not run for reelection, being the first President to not seek a second term. Polk was not well known nationally, but he was strong about the annexation of Texas. He won the election against Henry Clay by 40,000 votes.
Polk had four primary goals for his administration: 1) reduce the tariff, 2) reestablish an independent treasury, 3) settle the Oregon boundary dispute with Great Britain, and 4) acquire California. He achieved all these objectives. He carried out every item of his political agenda. Of all the United States Presidents, only George Washington had such a record of success.
During the administration of Polk, the United States achieved its greatest growth in territory. While Polk was President, the United States flag was raised over most of the area now forming nine Western states, and Iowa, Wisconsin, and Texas entered the Union. Most of this territory was won as a result of winning the Mexican War.
While in the White House, Mrs. Polk became the first wife of a President to serve as secretary to her husband. She read over and approved his writings and clipped news articles that she thought he should see. The Polks did not attend the theater or horse races because of Mrs. Polk's strict Moravian beliefs. Dancing, card playing, and alcoholic drinks were banned from the White House as were visitors who came on the Sabbath. The Polks were regulars at the First Presbyterian Church even though he did not join until just before he died.
Polk apparently was not a friendly guy, being described as "cold, silent, narrow, and ungenerous." Apparently few people regretted that he didn't seek a second term. The "Polk Doctrine" was described as "our settled policy, that no further European colony or dominion shall with our consent, be planted or established on any part of the North American continent." He extended the doctrine to cover European interference in the relationships between the American countries.
Polk died of cholera on June 15, 1849, just a few months after leaving office.
The World of President Polk . Edgar Allen Poe published his volume of poetry, The Raven and Other Poems, in 1845. . American composer Stephen Foster wrote many songs such as "Oh! Susanna" and "Swanee River" that became popular in the mid-1840's. . Brigham Young led the Mormon Pioneers to the Great Salt Lake Valley in 1847 where they founded the State of Deseret (now Utah). . The nation's first gold rush was triggered when gold was discovered in California in 1848. . Clipper ships were first launched during the mid-1840's. . A million people immigrated to the United States in the mid-1840's due to a potato famine in Ireland. . the first Woman's Rights Convention was held in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York, where women's rights in divorce, property control, and voting were discussed. . The Communist Manifesto was issued in 1848 by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Facts for this post came from an article by Henry Steele Commager in World Book EncyclopediaP, Vol. 15, pp 640-644.
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