James K Polk

11th president - 1845-1849

 

The original "dark horse" candidate, Polk was initially considered only a vice-presidential contender but won the Democratic nomination for the 1844 election at the ninth ballot, on the basis of his expansionist policies. Like his mentor, Andrew Jackson, he endorsed the idea that his nation had a "manifest destiny" to rule from sea to sea. He supported the "re-occupation" of Oregon, the "re-annexation" of Texas, and the acquisition of California. These goals were largely achieved. The Oregon issue, and with it the question of the north-western border of the US, was peacefully settled with Great Britain. The Texas issue provoked war with Mexico, but American forces led by General Zachary Taylor won a series of resounding victories, even occupying Mexico City. By the end of Polk's presidency, the southern borders of Texas had been more or less settled in their present form, while Mexico had also ceded New Mexico and California in return for $15m.

These ostensible successes had their drawbacks. Polk's enemies denounced the Mexican war as an immoral war of aggression, and the vast expansion of US territory left a legacy of bitterness between North and South over the question of slavery in the new territories.

Polk, originally a North Carolina lawyer, retired at the end of his first term and died three months later, possibly from cholera, at his home in Nashville, Tennessee. A notorious workaholic, he was widely felt to have undermined his health by his obsessive labours in the White House.

In his own words

"No president who performs his duties faithfully and conscientiously can have any leisure."

"I am sure I shall be a happier man in retirement than I have been during the four years I have filled the highest office in the gift of my countrymen."

In others' words

"Politics had become his whole life, aside from which he had no aspirations, intellectual interests, recreation, or even friendships." Charles G Sellers

"I more than suspect that he is deeply conscious of being in the wrong – that he feels the blood of this [the Mexican] war, like the blood of Abel, is crying to heaven against him... He is a bewildered, confounded and miserably perplexed man." Abraham Lincoln

"James K Polk, a great president. Said what he intended to do, and did it." Harry S Truman

Minutiae

Polk was plagued with diarrhoea for much of his presidency.

When he was 17 he underwent an operation to remove his gallstones, without anaesthetic. (He drank alcohol to dull the pain.)

Aged 49 when he took office, Polk was the youngest president to date.

The Whig press denounced Polk as a coward for having once refused to take part in a duel.

The California gold rush began in his presidency.

His hairstyle – short at the top but long at the back – has been described as the first "mullet".

His wife, Sarah Childress, banned dancing in the White House.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Sales Consultants - OTE up to £35,000

£15000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Franchise Operations Manager - Midlands or North West

£40000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The position will be home based...

Recruitment Genius: Hotel and Spa Duty Manager

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are friendly, sociable, ...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Executive

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This independent publishing and...

Day In a Page

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map
Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
Paris Fashion Week

Paris Fashion Week

Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
A year of the caliphate:

Isis, a year of the caliphate

Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

Marks and Spencer

Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

'We haven't invaded France'

Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

Remembering 7/7 ten years on

Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

They’re here to help

We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?
Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

'Heritage' is a loaded word in the Dixie, but the Charleston killings show how dangerous it is to cling to a deadly past, says Rupert Cornwell
What exactly does 'one' mean? Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue

What exactly does 'one' mean?

Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue