Doug is an active trader of stocks, bonds, and commodities, as well as an experienced non-fiction writer.
The great financial panic of 1837 had drawn to a close, and by the middle of the 1840s America was busting at the seams. In an article written by John O’Sullivan in the United States Magazine and Democratic Review in 1845, he argued for the “the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by the providence for free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” Americans wasted no time and began to move west in droves, seeking a chance at a new life and more land. “If hell lay to the west,” one pioneer declared, “Americans would cross over heaven to get there.” The brave souls that suffered the hardships of taming a new land had to fulfill their “providential density” to subdue the entire continent. The lure of the open country drew all types, from trappers and farmers, miners and merchants, to domestic help and prostitutes. America was on the move westward and President James K. Polk would lead the charge.
James K. Polk
Born in a log cabin in North Carolina, James K. Polk was the son of Samuel Polk, a prosperous farmer, surveyor, and land speculator. Samuel moved his family to Tennessee when James was ten. Samuel was a staunch Jeffersonian-Republican who would become an acquaintance of the future president, Andrew Jackson.
In poor health much of his childhood, James was a bookish boy. He graduated with honors from the University of North Carolina and then returned to Tennessee to study law under Jackson’s associate. Polk had political ambitions and won a spot in the Tennessee legislature. With a romance encouraged by Jackson, James married the politically astute and well educated Sarah Childress. She would stick with him through his many political ups and downs. With his natural talent for politics, and Jackson and Sarah in his corner, he would become the speaker of the House of Representatives and the governor of Tennessee.
With the four year term of the unpopular president John Tyler coming to an end, the presidential election of 1844 drew many contenders. At the Democratic Convention in Baltimore, Polk was a long shot for winning the nomination for president. He was hoping rather for the vice president slot on the ticket. At the convention, the annexation of Texas was the hot topic of the day and each candidate spoke his mind. The leader of the Democratic party and former president, Martin Van Buren, opposed adding Texas to the Union since it was a slave holding state. Polk’s opinion on annexation was, “I have no hesitation in declaring that I am in favor of immediate re-annexation of Texas to the government territory of the United States.” At the ninth vote at the convention, Polk came out as the party’s presidential candidate. He would go on to win the general election against Whig candidate Henry Clay and become the nation’s eleventh president.
The Oregon Territory
As the newly elected president, James Polk made it apparent he had his eyes set on the acquisition of the Oregon Territory, the vast swath of land composing the current states of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and sections of Montana and Wyoming. In his March 4, 1845, inaugural address, he made his intentions clear when he spoke, “Our title to the country of the Oregon is ‘clear and unquestionable,’ and already are our people preparing to perfect that title by occupying it with their wives and children…The world beholds the peaceful triumphs of the industry of our emigrants…The…benefits of our republican institutions should be extended over them in the distant regions which they have selected for their homes.”
When Polk entered the White House, there were several thousand Americans living in Oregon. The territory was under joint control of Great Britain and the United States. John Tyler, Polk’s predecessor, had attempted to reach an agreement with Britain to divide the territory, but the negotiations failed. Congress had even debated a bill to organize a territorial government and build several forts.
The question hotly debated was exactly how much of Oregon should be possessed by the United States. A more radical faction, called “All Oregon men,” wanted territory up to latitude 50 degrees and 40 minutes, which would have included much of Canada. “Fifty-four forty or fight!” was the expansionists' cry. Polk was at first mildly enthusiastic with their idea and asked Congress to officially notify Britain of the country’s intentions. After five months of debate in Congress, a message was sent across the Atlantic. The British came back with a proposed boundary of the forty-ninth parallel, with Vancouver Island remaining under British control. Polk, not willing to start a war over the distant and undeveloped land to the northwest, asked Congress to accept the British proposal. In the summer of 1846, a treaty was signed, and the United States acquired a vast and fertile tract of land. America now encompassed land from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans, “from sea to shining sea.”
The Annexation of Texas
Polk’s America was growing; the population had doubled every twenty years and had now reached demographic parity with Great Britain. Technology was becoming more prevalent as the railroads began to link much of the nation, and the spread of telegraph wires from city to city heralded the news at lightning speed. The growing population, technological improvements, and a desire for expansion was making America a strong military power—one that would soon be tested.
The Republic of Texas, a large tract of land that included modern day Texas and parts of New Mexico and Colorado, had successfully won its independence from Mexico in 1836. With the new republic largely populated by American emigres, it seemed inevitable that Texas would eventually become part of the United States. Since the presidency of Andrew Jackson, there had been a movement to acquire Texas; however, Mexico considered it a breakaway province and threatened war with the United States if it intervened. Another complicating factor was Great Britain’s desire to spread her influence in Texas. It was believed that if Britain would gain a strong influence in the republic, slavery would be abolished, thus forming a safe haven for fugitive slaves from the southern states.
Perhaps the most significant accomplishment of John Tyler’s administration was the annexation resolution signed by President Tyler during his last full day as president. Tyler immediately sent an emissary to Texas, the U.S. representative to Texas, Andrew Jackson Donelson, to negotiate with Texas their move into the Union. When Polk became president a few days after Donelson’s departure, his first major decision was to not recall Donelson from Texas and allow him to finalize the annexation of the new state. Donelson was successful and Polk signed a resolution in December 1845 making Texas the 28th state.
The War with Mexico
When the news of the annexation of Texas reached Mexico in March 1845, they immediately severed diplomatic relationships with the United States. Shortly after taking office, fearing war, Polk dispatched General Zachary Taylor into the territory with about fifteen hundred troops. The troops were to guard the disputed border with Mexico. The U.S. claimed the boundary between the two countries was the Rio Grande, while the Mexicans contended the river two hundred miles to the north, the Nueces, was the border.
Polk hoped his show of force would push the Mexicans into negotiations. In late 1845, Polk sent the diplomat John Slidell to Mexico to purchase New Mexico and California with a purse of up to forty-million dollars and settle the border location in favor of the Rio Grande. Upon Slidell’s arrival in Mexico City, the president of Mexico was unwilling to receive him. Dispatches from Slidell back to Washington made it clear that the territorial expansion could not be accomplished without war. Polk took Slidell’s rebuff as an “ample cause of war,” and prepared to ask Congress for a declaration of war.
As Polk and Congress stewed over the possibility of war, things on the border were heating up. In April the Mexican forces skirmished with Taylor’s forces camped on the Rio Grande. The battle on the north side of the river resulted in the death or capture of dozens of American soldiers.
The fighting over the disputed land was all that President Polk needed to declare war on Mexico. Polk told Congress in May 1846, “Mexico had invaded our territory…and shed American blood upon American soil.” Many in Congress did not agree with Polk and felt a war with Mexico would be imperialistic. The representative from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, demanded to know the exact spot on American soil where American blood had been spilt.
California and New Mexico
The ensuing war with Mexico was lopsided, as the Americans had a superior army. The war proceeded on several fronts. Colonel Stephen Kearny marched his troops from Fort Leavenworth in Kansas into the Mexican territory of California and took control of what is now southern California. General Taylor and his troops marched further into Mexico. Taylor was able to capture several towns including Buena Vista in early 1847. General Winfield Scott sailed his forces out of New Orleans and captured the port city of Veracruz. Scott then marched westward across Mexico to finally capture the capitol, Mexico City, in September 1847.
Polk, sensing victory, dispatched Nicholas Trist to accompany Scott’s army to negotiate a peace treaty with Mexican leaders. Trist’s mission was to acquire from Mexico what would now be the states of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, parts of New Mexico and Colorado, and the Baja of California, and establish the Rio Grande as the southern border of Texas. Trist was authorized to pay up to thirty-million dollars in exchange for the territory. Though the Americans were having success in the war with Mexico, the Mexicans seemed reluctant to negotiate a peaceful end to hostilities. Polk was growing frustrated with the lack of progress on the negotiation and recalled Trist. Going against Polk’s orders, Trist remained in Mexico City to complete the negotiations. Trist’s recalcitrance paid off when in early 1848 he met with the Mexican officials in the small town of Guadalupe Hidalgo to sign a treaty. The Americans got nearly everything they requested except the Baja of California. In return, a fifteen-million dollar payment was made to Mexico and the United States paid reparations owed to U.S. citizens from Mexico. With the signing of the treaty, America had just grown by over half a million square miles.
The Mexicans might have re-thought the treaty if they would have known of the gold discovered at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California, in early 1848. As news spread of the gold, thousands of prospective gold miners traveled by sea or over land to seek their fortune in California, accelerating the move west of hundred of thousands of hungry Americans.
Polk finished his term in office in March 1849. Just three months after leaving office he was dead, a victim of illness and overwork. At age 53, he was the youngest president to die except for Garfield and Kennedy, who perished with the assassin’s bullet.
Under the presidency of James Polk, America grew by more than a million square miles—an area that now includes the states of Arizona, Utah, Nevada, California, Oregon, Idaho, Washington, Texas, much of New Mexico, and portions of Wyoming, Montana, and Colorado. With the exception of the southern part of Nevada, which was acquired in 1854, the territorial acquisitions under Polk established the modern borders of the contiguous United States.
When Polk entered the White House, Missouri was the western edge of America. Just four years later, the western edge had moved to the Pacific Ocean. More than any other president, Polk embraced “Manifest Destiny,” bringing to reality the conviction that the United States was divinely ordained to spread across North America.
James Polk: Best Mullet Ever (1845 - 1849)
Ranking as President in History
In the book by Brian Lamb et.al., ninety-one leading historians ranked the presidents compared to each other based on a number of factors. The presidents are ranked according to ten criteria from public persuasion, crisis leadership, to performance with the contest of the times. President Polk did well in the survey, ranking behind James Monroe and ahead of Bill Clinton. He ranked low in the category of “equal justice for all” and ranked high in “Crisis leadership and administrative skills”.
- Kutler, Stanley I. (Editor in Chief) Dictionary of American History. Third Edition. Charles Scribner’s Sons. 2003.
- Lamb, Brian, Susan Swain, and C-SPAN. The Presidents: Noted Historians Rank America’s Best – and Worst – Chief Executives. New York: PublicAffairs. 2019.
- Lengyel, Cornel Adam. Presidents of the United States. Golden Press. 1970.
- Merry, Robert W. A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, The Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent. Simon & Schuster. 2009.
- Tindall, George Brown and David Emory Shi. America: A Narrative History. W.W. Norton & Company. 2007.
© 2019 Doug West
Doug West (author) from Missouri on September 18, 2019:
I agree that wars are expensive in lives and treasure, however, Polk wanted this war to gain all the territory to the West.
Erudite Scholar on September 17, 2019:
Polk is a very interesting President. The war with Mexico could have been averted though. War is expensive and it costs lives. Thank you for the article.
Tim Truzy from U.S.A. on April 26, 2019:
Interesting story about the 11th president, Doug. He is hornored and considered a visionary here in N.C. and this article explains why. Thank you for telling his story well.