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James K. Polk: 11th President

Updated on January 2, 2018
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Angela loves history and feels it is essential to our future to know the past. Without it, we are destined to repeat the past.

Official White House Portrait


James Polk was born on November 2, 1795 in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, and raised on the Tennessee frontier. He was known for his honesty and integrity. He never missed a class in his entire college career at University of North Carolina, and even graduated with honors in 1818 in Mathematics and the Classics. He also only missed one day in his entire fourteen years in Congress.

In 1820, he passed the bar and began a law practice in Columbia, Tennessee. Three years later, he served in the Tennessee Legislature until 1825, where he became friends with Andrew Jackson. While in the Tennessee Legislature, he married his wife Sarah Childress who would help him in both his personal and political life. When his term was over, he served in the House of Representatives for two terms as Speaker of the House, where he was 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 good 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 and ran against Henry Clay for president.

James K Polk and Sarah C Polk
James K Polk and Sarah C Polk | Source

Polk's Presidency

Unlike Clay, Polk was much less known. Therefore, it was a great surprise when he won, gaining the title "the Dark Horse" becoming our 11th president and serving from 1845 to 1849. His campaign slogan was, "all of Texas and all of Oregon." He stayed true to his word, Texas was admitted as the 28th state on December 29, 1845, and Oregon's boundaries were established through a treaty with Great Britain the following year.

Oregon's treaty did not come easily and was taken with great caution. 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 all of Oregon would be taken without a full war. Fortunately, Britain also had the same reservations against 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, but when Polk reasserted that America wanted the entire area, he settled for his original assertion, with the exception of the southern tip of Vancouver Island. Peace was found, and the treaty was officially signed in 1846.

California was one of the more difficult territories to gain control of. Polk offered Mexico $20 million plus settlement of damage claims that were owed to Americans in return for both what we now know as California and New Mexico. Mexican leaders declined since they did not feel they could give half the country and remain in power; therefore, Polk sent General Zachary Taylor to the area on the Rio Grande. Mexican troops felt this was an aggressive act, and 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.

In 1848, when the war ended, Mexico released all claims to what is now Texas, California, Nevada, along with a portion of what is now Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming. They offered the United States $15 million along with assuming the damage claims of Americans. Once we gained control of California, gold was soon found there. Eventually, after California became a state, it would become known as the "Golden State."

Polk was extremely successful in expanding the United States territory, which may have increased the already bitter quarrel between the North and the South over rights of slavery. Despite his success, he continued to try to expand the United States as far out as Cuba, offering $100 million dollars to Spain. They turned him down.

When it came time to run again, Polk declined. He died three months after he left office in 1849 of cholera.

List of American Presidents

1. George Washington
16. Abraham Lincoln
31. Herbert Hoover
2. John Adams
17. Andrew Johnson 18. Ulysses S. Grant
32. Franklin D. Roosevelt
3. Thomas Jefferson
19. Rutherford B. Hayes
33. Harry S. Truman
4. James Madison
19. Rutherford B. Hayes
34. Dwight D. Eisenhower
5. James Monroe
20. James Garfield
35. John F. Kennedy
6. John Quincy Adams
21. Chester A. Arthur
36. Lyndon B. Johnson
7. Andrew Jackson
22. Grover Cleveland
37. Richard M. Nixon
8. Martin Van Buren
23. Benjamin Harrison
38. Gerald R. Ford
9. William Henry Harrison
24. Grover Cleveland
39. James Carter
10. John Tyler
25. William McKinley
40. Ronald Reagan
11. James K. Polk
26. Theodore Roosevelt
41. George H. W. Bush
12. Zachary Taylor
27. William Howard Taft
42. William J. Clinton
13. Millard Fillmore
28. Woodrow Wilson
43. George W. Bush
14. Franklin Pierce
29. Warren G. Harding
44. Barack Obama
15. James Buchanan
30. Calvin Coolidge
45. Donald Trump

Fun Facts about James Knox Polk

  • 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.
  • At the time he was the youngest president to be elected, and the first to be elected under the age of 50.
  • Youngest president to die of natural causes.
  • Had the shortest retirement after being in office, only three months.
  • Only president to have been Speaker of the House and President of the United States.
  • When he was 17 years old, he had a surgery to have urinary bladder stones removed. Since anesthesia was not yet invented, he had the surgery while awake. Anesthesia was invented while he was in office.


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. | Source

Basic Facts

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

Excerpt from the History Channel


  • About James K. Polk | James K. Polk Home. (n.d.). Retrieved April 25, 2016, from
  • 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.
  • U.S. Presidential Fun Facts. (n.d.). Retrieved April 22, 2016, from

© 2016 Angela Michelle Schultz


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