James K. Polk: 11th President: The Dark Horse

Updated on October 15, 2019
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Angela loves history and feels it is essential to our future to know the past—or else be destined to repeat it.

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Who Was James Polk and What Did He Do?

James Polk was born on November 2, 1795, in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, and raised on the Tennessee frontier. Honesty and integrity were essential to him, and he portrayed this by never missing a class in his entire college career at the University of North Carolina and only missed one day in his whole fourteen years in Congress.

He graduated from the University of North Carolina with honors in 1818 in Mathematics and the Classics. Then in 1820, he passed the bar and began a law practice in Columbia, Tennessee. Three years later, he served in the Tennessee Legislature for two years. While there, he became friends with Andrew Jackson and married his wife, Sarah Childress. Sara helped him not only as a wife but also in his political ventures advising him in public matters. Since they did not have children of their own, this freed up her energy to do so, although they did help raise Polk's brother's son Martin Polk, as well as his two younger brothers after his father died.

When his term in the Tennessee Legislature was over, he served in the House of Representatives for two terms as Speaker of the House. He became a chief lieutenant of Jackson's in the Bank War. He then went on to serve as Governor of Tennessee.

In 1844, he ran against Senator Henry Clay, who had been a very successful Speaker of the House. He was the leading contender for the Democratic nomination. Clay, who had the Whig vote, and Martin Van Buren, who had been expected to win the Democratic nomination for President, both were very vocal against the annexation of Texas. Polk was very assertive in his belief that Texas and Oregon should join the United States. This idea proved useful to the public since the North wanted to see Oregon become occupied, and the South wanted to see Texas re-annexed. Polk won the Democratic nomination replacing Martin Van Buren and ran against Henry Clay for president.

James K Polk and Sarah C Polk
James K Polk and Sarah C Polk | Source

Fifty-Four Forty or Fight!

The lesser-known James Polk, defeated Clay in the election, which was a great shock to the public. He gained the title "the Dark Horse" when he became the 11th American President. He served one term from 1845 to 1849. Just as he promised in his campaign slogan, "all of Texas and all of Oregon," Texas was admitted as the 28th state on December 29, 1845, and Oregon's boundaries were established through a treaty with Great Britain the following year during Polk's administration.

Oregon's treaty did not come easily, and many were cautious about accepting it. Early on, extremists shouted, "Fifty-four forty or fight!" The latitude 54'40' was the southern boundary of Russian Alaska. Polk did not want to start a war with Great Britain and realized it was unlikely all of Oregon would be taken without a full war. Fortunately, Britain also had the same reservations against the war. Instead, they compromised, allowing Britain to extend the Canadian border along the 49th parallel from the Rockies to the Pacific. Unfortunately, the British minister initially declined. When Polk reasserted that America wanted the entire area, he settled for his original assertion except for the southern tip of Vancouver Island. Eventually, they found peace when they signed the treaty in 1846.

Why Was James K Polk Important in the Mexican American War?

California was one of the more difficult territories to gain control of. Polk offered Mexico $20 million-plus settlement of damage claims that were owed to Americans in return for both what we now know as California and New Mexico. Mexican leaders declined since they did not feel that they could give half the country and remain in power; therefore, Polk sent General Zachary Taylor to the area on the Rio Grande.

Mexican troops felt this was an aggressive act. They, in turn, attacked Taylor's men, which caused Congress to declare war against Mexico, beginning the Mexican War. America repeatedly won battles and eventually occupied Mexico City.

Who Was Guadalupe Hidalgo?

This treaty would be known as the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (gwah-dah-loop-ay ee-dahl-go), and brought the end of the Mexican-American War on February 2, 1848. It ended in the city of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The treaty was named after the town, not a person. The city was just north of the capital and was named after the Virgin of Guadalupe, more famously known as the Virgin Mary.

In 1848, when the war ended, Mexico released all claims to what is now Texas, California, Nevada, along with a portion of what is now Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming. They offered the United States $15 million along with assuming the damage claims of Americans. Once the United States gained control of California, they found gold there. Eventually, after California became a state, it became known as the "Golden State."

Polk was hugely successful in expanding the United States territory, which may have increased the already bitter quarrel between the North and the South over the rights of slavery. Despite his success, he continued to try to expand the United States as far out as Cuba, offering $100 million to Spain. They turned him down.

When it came time to run again, Polk declined due to his health. He died three months after he left office in 1849 of cholera.


This letterhead seal used by President Polk is very similar to the official seal of the United States of America that was created decades later.
This letterhead seal used by President Polk is very similar to the official seal of the United States of America that was created decades later. | Source

Fun Facts

  • He was the first president to have his photo taken.
  • During college, he had perfect attendance. In the 14 years in Congress, he was only absent once.
  • Three states became states while he was in office: Texas, Iowa, and Wisconsin.
  • At the time, he was the first to be elected under the age of 50 and the youngest to die of natural causes.
  • He was the first to decline renomination.
  • Had the shortest retirement after being in office, only three months.
  • The only president to have been Speaker of the House and President of the United States.
  • When he was 17 years old, he had surgery to have urinary bladder stones removed. Since anesthesia was not yet invented, he had the surgery while awake. Anesthesia was developed while he was in office. The operation may have made him infertile, as he and his wife never had any children of their own.

Basic Facts

November 2, 1795 - North Carolina
President Number
Military Service
Wars Served
Age at Beginning of Presidency
50 years old
Term of Office
March 4, 1845 - March 3, 1849
How Long President
4 years
George M. Dallas
Age and Year of Death
June 15, 1849 (aged 53)
Cause of Death

Excerpt from the History Channel

List of American Presidents

1. George Washington
16. Abraham Lincoln
31. Herbert Hoover
2. John Adams
17. Andrew Johnson 18. Ulysses S. Grant
32. Franklin D. Roosevelt
3. Thomas Jefferson
19. Rutherford B. Hayes
33. Harry S. Truman
4. James Madison
19. Rutherford B. Hayes
34. Dwight D. Eisenhower
5. James Monroe
20. James Garfield
35. John F. Kennedy
6. John Quincy Adams
21. Chester A. Arthur
36. Lyndon B. Johnson
7. Andrew Jackson
22. Grover Cleveland
37. Richard M. Nixon
8. Martin Van Buren
23. Benjamin Harrison
38. Gerald R. Ford
9. William Henry Harrison
24. Grover Cleveland
39. James Carter
10. John Tyler
25. William McKinley
40. Ronald Reagan
11. James K. Polk
26. Theodore Roosevelt
41. George H. W. Bush
12. Zachary Taylor
27. William Howard Taft
42. William J. Clinton
13. Millard Fillmore
28. Woodrow Wilson
43. George W. Bush
14. Franklin Pierce
29. Warren G. Harding
44. Barack Obama
15. James Buchanan
30. Calvin Coolidge
45. Donald Trump


  • About James K. Polk | James K. Polk Home. (n.d.). Retrieved April 25, 2016, from http://www.jameskpolk.com/james-polk-biography.php
  • Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. "Our Lady of Guadalupe." Encyclopædia Britannica. January 03, 2018. Accessed April 15, 2018. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Our-Lady-of-Guadalupe-patron-saint-of-Mexico.
  • "First Lady Biography: Sarah Polk." Sarah Polk Biography :: National First Ladies' Library. Accessed April 02, 2018. http://www.firstladies.org/biographies/firstladies.aspx?biography=12.
  • Freidel, F., & Sidey, H. (2009). James Polk. Retrieved April 22, 2016, from https://www.whitehouse.gov/1600/presidents/jamespolk
  • Sullivan, G. (2001). Mr. President: A book of U.S. presidents. New York: Scholastic.
  • "The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo." National Archives and Records Administration. Accessed April 15, 2018. https://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/guadalupe-hidalgo.
  • U.S. Presidential Fun Facts. (n.d.). Retrieved April 22, 2016, from http://kids.nationalgeographic.com/explore/history/presidential-fun-facts/#geo-washington.jpg

© 2016 Angela Michelle Schultz


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