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

Angela loves history and feels it is essential to our future to know the past—or else we're destined to repeat it.

Official White House Portrait

Early Life

On November 2, 1795, James Polk was born in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, and raised on the Tennessee frontier. Honesty and integrity were essential to him. 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 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 as a wife and 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 and 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 helpful 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.

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 and served one term from 1845 to 1849. His campaign slogan promised, "all of Texas and all of Oregon," and he came through. Texas was admitted as the 28th state on December 29, 1845. 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 the United States would take all of Oregon 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.

The Mexican American War

California was one of the more difficult territories to gain control of. Polk offered Mexico a $20 million-plus settlement of damage claims 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.

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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.

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 Texas, California, Nevada, and a portion of what is now Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming. They offered the United States $15 million and assumed 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.

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.
  • He was the first to be elected under the age of 50 and the youngest to die of natural causes at that time.
  • He was the first to decline renomination.
  • He 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 remove urinary bladder stones. 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

Question Answer


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



  • About James K. Polk | James K. Polk Home. (n.d.). Retrieved April 25, 2016, from
  • Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. "Our Lady of Guadalupe." Encyclopædia Britannica. January 03, 2018. Accessed April 15, 2018.
  • "First Lady Biography: Sarah Polk." Sarah Polk Biography :: National First Ladies' Library. Accessed April 02, 2018.
  • Freidel, F., & Sidey, H. (2009). James Polk. Retrieved April 22, 2016, from
  • 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.
  • U.S. Presidential Fun Facts. (n.d.). Retrieved April 22, 2016, from

© 2016 Angela Michelle Schultz

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