James K. Polk

Hindsight is 20/20 and hindsight has shown that the presidency of James K. Polk was one of the better presidencies in American History. It was during his presidency that America became a nation that spread from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. Texas would enter the union after the Mexican – American War, America would also acquire California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah and parts of New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming and would settle the British – American dispute between the Oregon Territory and avoid war with England with his compromise of the 49th parallel.

Election of 1844

After the death of William Henry Harrison, John Tyler took office. Tyler’s presidency was marred with division and constant conflict. The conflict left him alienated from his party and the nation looking to elect someone new. Henry Clay would receive the Whig nomination.

The favorite for the Democratic nomination was former President Martin Van Buren, however James Polk emerged when Van Buren would not support the annexation of Texas. Polk’s support of Texas drew the support of Andrew Jackson who remained influential. Even-so, Van Buren would win a simple majority of delegates but did not gain the two-thirds necessary to secure the nomination.  The ballot was cast six times and Van Buren still could not win the required majority. Polk emerged as the “dark horse” candidate and would win a unanimous majority on the eighth ballot.

After securing the nomination, the Democratic party was splintered into small factions. In an attempt to unify the party Polk said that he would only serve one term as President of the United States. The Democrats would unite and Polk would win the presidency over Henry Clay with 62% of the electoral college.

Presidency

When President James Polk entered office in 1845 he laid out 4 goals for his first and only term in the White House.

  • Reestablish the Independent Treasury System
  • Reduce tariffs
  • Acquire some or all of Oregon County.
  • Acquire California and New Mexico from Mexico.

He was able to accomplish all of the goals stated and continue American expansion.

Fiscal Policy

One of President Polk’s first priorities was to reduce the tariffs. In 1846, Robert J. Walker put forth a bill that was names the Walker Tariff.  This tariff was a drastic reduction to the Whig backed tariff in 1842. These actions were popular in the South and West, but worried many protectionists in Pennsylvania. Polk also restored the Independent Treasury System.

Foreign Policy

President Polk was an expansionist and wanted to expand the United States from coast to coast. His policy was to annex Texas from Mexico and to also attain the Oregon Territory and put to rest the dispute over the 54th parallel by compromising with the British and acquiring the Oregon Territory up to the 49th parallel. While some viewed Polk’s compromise as weak, Polk wanted to avoid war with the British.

Mexican – American War

The major event of the Polk Presidency was the Mexican – American War. After the annexation of Texas, Polk pursued the acquisition of California. California boasted the San Francisco bay which gave easy access to trade with Asia. Polk sent his diplomat John Slidell to Mexico to purchase California for $24 – 30 million. The Mexicans were insulted by the offer as they believed that America owed them compensation for the loss of Texas. Mexico refused to see Slidell citing that he did not have the right credentials. In an effort to put more pressure on the Mexicans, Polk sent in troops under General Zachary Taylor into the areas between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande territory claimed by both the United States and Mexico.

Slidell returned to Polk after being denied by the Mexican government due to his “credentials.” President Polk found the treatment as insulting and began preparations to ask Congress for a declaration of war. Just days before he took the floor of Congress to ask for a declaration of war he learned that the Mexicans had killed 11 American soldiers. This became Polk’s centerpiece in his argument for war. He would go on to thunder that the Mexicans had “invaded our territory and shed American blood upon American soil.” Support was overwhelmingly in favor of war, but not without a few reluctant senators such as Abraham Lincoln and John Quincy Adams.

President James Polk micro-managed the entire war. He selected the top generals and set the strategy. By 1846, General Stephen W. Kearny had captured New Mexico, General Zachary Taylor was having much success against the Mexican Army in the Rio Grande and Army captain John C. Fremont had overthrown the Mexican Army in California and taken control of Sonoma.

The Americans did engage in a secret plan to release General Santa Anna. Upon release and safe passage to Mexico Santa Anna agreed to convince the Mexicans to sell California and New Mexico to the United States. This plan failed as the dictator made himself President and then tried to drive the Americans back. The efforts failed as Generals Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott decimated the Mexican Army and destroyed all resistance. Winfield Scott captured Mexico City in 1847. The Mexicans would surrender in 1848 when they signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The treaty was quickly ratified by Polk and put to the Congress which was also quickly ratified.

After the smoke had cleared, Mexico’s territory had been halved while the United States had grown a third larger.

Legacy

President James Polk had promised to serve only 4 years. During those 4 years he accomplished more than many of his predecessors had accomplished in 8 years. He had expanded the United States from coast to coast, acquired California thus securing American trade with Asia, settled the dispute of the 54th parallel and acquired the Oregon Territory, admitted Texas, Iowa and Wisconsin to the union, lowered tariffs, set up the Independent Treasury Department and successfully won the Mexican – American War.  He accomplished his entire agenda, but at the cost of his health.

By the end of Polk’s four years his health had faded. He had entered the office of President full of energy and left exhausted. His retirement would only last 3 months as he would contract cholera in New Orleans and die at his home in Tennessee. President James Polk is known as the “least known consequential president.”