James Polk

James Polk

James Polk, the son of a farmer, was born in Mecklenburg, North Carolina, on 2nd November, 1795. When Polk was a child the family moved to Tennessee. Although he suffered from poor health, Polk managed to attend and graduate from the University of North Carolina.

Polk was admitted to the bar in 1820 and practiced law in Nashville. A member of the Democratic Party, Polk was elected to Congress in 1825 and became house speaker ten years later. In 1839 Polk was elected governor of Tennessee.

In 1843 Martin Van Buren was expected to become the Democratic Party candidate in the presidential election. However, Polk won the nomination and beat Henry Clay (Whig Party) and James Birney (Liberty Party) in the election.

In December, 1845, Polk announced the annexation of Texas. This marked the beginning of the Mexican War and Zachary Taylor and a 4,000 man army, was ordered into the Rio Grande. Taylor defeated the Mexicans at Palo Alto on 8th May, 1846 and in September captured Monterrey. Taylor upset Polk when he granted the Mexican Army an eight-week armistice. Polk took away Taylor's best troops and ordered him to fight a defensive war. Taylor disobeyed these orders and in February, 1847, marched south and although outnumbered four to one, defeated the Mexican Army at Buena Vista.

In 1848 the Whig Party selected Zachary Taylor as its candidate for president. Polk decided not to stand and the Democratic Party candidate, Lewis Cass (1,220,544), was defeated by Taylor. James Polk died soon afterwards in Nashville, Tennessee, on 15th June, 1849.

Primary Sources

(1) James Polk, speech in Congress (2nd December, 1845)

At the end of the year's notice, should Congress think it proper to make provision for giving that notice, we shall have reached a period when the national rights in Oregon must either be abandoned or firmly maintained. That they cannot be abandoned without a sacrifice of both national honor and interest is too clear to admit of doubt.

Oregon is a part of the North American continent, to which, it is confidently affirmed, the title of the United States is the

best now in existence. For the grounds on which that title rests I refer you to the correspondence of the late and present secretary of state with the British plenipotentiary during the negotiation. The British proposition of compromise, which would make the Columbia the line south of 49°, with a trifling addition of detached territory to the United States north of that river, and would leave on the British side two-thirds of the whole Oregon territory, including the free navigation of the Columbia and all the valuable harbors on the Pacific, can never for a moment be entertained by the United States without an abandonment of their just and clear territorial rights, their own self-respect, and the national honor. For the information of Congress, I communicate herewith the correspondence which took place between the two governments during the late negotiation.

The rapid extension of our settlements over our territories heretofore unoccupied, the addition of new states to our confederacy, the expansion of free principles, and our rising greatness as a nation are attracting the attention of the powers of Europe, and lately the doctrine has been broached in some of them of a "balance of power" on this continent to check our advancement. The United States, sincerely desirous of preserving relations of good understanding with all nations, cannot in silence permit any European interference on the North American continent, and should any such interference be attempted will be ready to resist it at any and all hazards.

It is well known to the American people and to all nations that this government has never interfered with the relations subsisting between other governments. We have never made ourselves parties to their wars or their alliances; we have not sought their territories by conquest; we have not mingled with parties in their domestic struggles; and believing our own form of government to be the best, we have never attempted to propagate it by intrigues, by diplomacy, or by force. We may claim on this continent a like exemption from European interference. The nations of America are equally sovereign and independent with those of Europe. They possess the same rights, independent of all foreign interposition, to make war, to conclude peace, and to regulate their internal affairs. The people of the United States cannot, therefore, view with indifference at tempts of European powers to interfere with the independent action of the nations on this continent.

The American system of government is entirely different from that of Europe. Jealousy among the different sovereigns of Europe, lest any one of them might become too powerful for the rest, has caused them anxiously to desire the establishment of what they term the "balance of power." It cannot be permitted to have any application on the North American continent, and especially to the United States. We must ever maintain the principle that the people of this continent alone have the right to decide their own destiny. Should any portion of them, constituting an independent state, propose to unite themselves with our confederacy, this will be a question for them and us to determine without any foreign interposition. We can never consent that European powers shall interfere to prevent such a union because it might disturb the "balance of power" which they may desire to maintain upon this continent.

(2) James Polk, speech in Congress (7th December, 1847)

The provinces of New Mexico and the Californias are contiguous to the territories of the United States, and if brought under the government of our laws their resources - mineral, agricultural, manufacturing, and commercial - would soon be developed.

Upper California is bounded on the north by our Oregon possessions, and if held by the United States would soon be settled by a hardy, enterprising, and intelligent portion of our population. The bay of San Francisco and other harbors along the Californian coast would afford shelter for our Navy, for our numerous whale ships, and other merchant vessels employed in the Pacific Ocean, and would in a short period become the marts of an extensive and profitable commerce with China and other countries of the East.

These advantages, in which the whole commercial world would participate, would at once be secured to the United States by the cession of this territory; while it is certain that as long as it remains a part of the Mexican dominions they can be enjoyed neither by Mexico herself nor by any other nation.

In proposing to acquire New Mexico and the Californias, it was known that but an inconsiderable portion of the Mexican

people would be transferred with them, the country embraced within these provinces being chiefly an uninhabited region.

These were the leading considerations which induced me to authorize the terms of peace which were proposed to Mexico. They were rejected, and negotiations being at an end, hostilities were renewed. An assault was made by our gallant Army upon the strongly fortified places near the gates of the city of Mexico and upon the city itself, and after several days of severe conflict the Mexican forces, vastly superior in number to our own, were driven from the city, and it was occupied by our troops.

Immediately after information was received of the unfavorable result of the negotiations, believing that his continued presence with the Army could be productive of no good, I determined to recall our commissioner. A dispatch to this effect was transmitted to him on the 6th of October last. The Mexican government will be informed of his recall, and that in the existing state of things I shall not deem it proper to make any further overtures of peace, but shall be at all times ready to receive and consider any proposals which may be made by Mexico.